On Buddhism and Nominalism

A forum for those wishing to discuss Buddhist history and teachings in the Western academic manner, referencing appropriate sources.
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Wayfarer
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On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Wayfarer » Wed Jun 15, 2016 12:30 pm

'Nominalism' is a term from the Western philosophical tradition. In medieval philosophy, the nominalists were opposed to the scholastic realists. The scholastic realists were those who believed in the reality of universals. Now, what 'universals' are, is a difficult concept, but they can be understood as predicates, for example, 'being red' or 'being round'. So according to realists (in the medieval sense, which is very different to today's scientific realists), 'redness' or 'roundness' are real independently of this or that red or round particular thing.

Basically this thinking has its roots in the Platonist tradition of Western philosophy, subsequently modified and interpreted by later philosophers. However, it is associated with Platonic realism, which says, among other things, that such things as numbers (or at least the natural numbers) are real, or really existent - they're not simply 'in the mind' but are the same for anyone who encounters them. And I will admit, I am actually quite drawn to platonism; I have the view that the number 7, for instance, is a real thing (using the word 'thing' metaphorically). But 7 must equal the sum of 4 and 3 anywhere in the world, or in any other world, for that matter; and I can't accept that this is simply a matter of a 'conventional truth'. (I also don't think it's a matter of ultimate truth, in the Buddhist sense; but then, neither does Plato, for whom knowledge of number and geometry is in the domain of dianoia, which is higher than sense perception, but not as high as knowledge of the Forms. But that is not important for this point.)

Now, the nominalists arose in medieval times, two famous examples being William of Ockham and Frances Bacon. Briefly, Nominalism is the philosophical view that abstract concepts, general terms, or universals have no real existence but exist only as names ('mere puffs of air', said Ockham). It also claims that various individual objects labeled by the same term have nothing in common but their name. In this view, it is only actual physical particulars that can be said to be real, and universals exist only post res, that is, subsequent to particular things.

Historically, nominalism generally won the day. Those debates between the medieval realists and nominalists raged for centuries, but in Western culture, the nominalists were very much the forefathers of today's scientifically-oriented types, and their influence is deep on that account - a case of history being written by the victors. I think there are very few realists outside the academy (and amongst Catholic philosophers - see 1, 2 and 3 if you have some leisure time for reading.)

Now as for Buddhism, the subject of nominalism comes up with the formal logical systems of Dignana and Dharmakirti. And it is almost universally assumed that Buddhist philosophy is nominalist (there's an article here.) The gist is that Buddhism rejects anything like 'real universal's on account of it being impossible to show that they exist, or to show that their purported existence makes any difference.

But there is a particular point that perplexes me. It seems to me that there is an example of a universal right at the centre of Buddhism - namely, the Buddha! Because it seems to me, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, that 'the Buddha' is more than simply the individual who was Siddhartha Gotama (although he was also that). The Buddha (and the Bodhisattvas) are the archetype of all wisdom. And archetypes are, in fact, 'universals', of which individuals are examples or instances. And to my mind, that is how come the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas are real beyond their particular, individual existence (which I certainly believe is so).

So I think the problem is that either I am thinking incorrectly about universals, or they have been wrongly characterised in the Buddhist scholastic tradition. It might be that how I am interpreting the meaning of universals is incorrect. But as this is the academic section, and as it's a very academic question, I thought I would post it here and see if anyone has any thoughts on it.
Only practice with no gaining idea ~ Suzuki-roshi

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Astus » Wed Jun 15, 2016 3:18 pm

Buddhism is filled with universals, they are known as dharmas. The dharmas are not considered derivatives of particulars, it's the other way around. People conceive conventional terms, but behind those terms there are only dharmas. For instance the relationship between various physical objects and the four primary elements. However, dharmas don't all have equal ontological status.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by gad rgyangs » Wed Jun 15, 2016 4:15 pm

Buddhism, like Christianity, is a religion based on revelation. Dont expect it to make sense philosophically.
Thoroughly tame your own mind.
This is (possibly) the teaching of Buddha.

"I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind."
- Descartes, 2nd Meditation 25

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Queequeg » Wed Jun 15, 2016 9:33 pm

Astus wrote:The dharmas are not considered derivatives of particulars, it's the other way around.
Particulars are derivative of dharmas?

Particulars are themselves dharmas...
People conceive conventional terms, but behind those terms there are only dharmas. For instance the relationship between various physical objects and the four primary elements.
you're talking about sravakayana conceptions of irreducible dharmas?
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Expedient Means Chapter

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Queequeg » Wed Jun 15, 2016 9:51 pm

Wayfarer wrote:But there is a particular point that perplexes me. It seems to me that there is an example of a universal right at the centre of Buddhism - namely, the Buddha! Because it seems to me, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, that 'the Buddha' is more than simply the individual who was Siddhartha Gotama (although he was also that). The Buddha (and the Bodhisattvas) are the archetype of all wisdom. And archetypes are, in fact, 'universals', of which individuals are examples or instances. And to my mind, that is how come the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas are real beyond their particular, individual existence (which I certainly believe is so).
Whether archetypes derive from particulars or particulars derive from archetypes - both seem wrong to me. I understand them to be simultaneous without exception.

I'm not sure if Buddhism is compatible with being categorized as "nominalism" or not - its a very different approach to knowing.
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Expedient Means Chapter

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Vima Repa » Thu Jun 16, 2016 6:55 am

I believe the problem of universals only emerges if you take particulars to be real, independent entities. Then you have to explain what it is different red things have in common, if it isn't participation in a universal 'redness'. Then there's the epistemological problems. If we take universals to be real in a merely provisional sense, I suppose we can have a kind of provisional knowledge about them. But there are epistemological complications for any theory that affirms knowledge of nonexistent entities, as Dharmakirti's does with anumana-pramana.

Dharmakirti definitely presented nominalist or conceptualist ideas. He went a couple of steps further and said that we also have universals of macroscopic wholes, as well as objects extended through time. So a tree, for example, is not a single particular, but made up of any number of parts that can be subdivided until we get to the atomic level. It also is not a single entity persisting through time, but made up of a series of moments or time-slices.

So in addition to the unreality of the universal category 'tree' which subsumes all particular trees, even particular trees are not real, just concepts overlaid on a collection of atoms and series of moments. Our apprehension of a "tree" as such is a posterior conceptual imputation on the original objects of color, shape, etc. that immediately present themselves to nonconceptual sensation.

As for the Buddha existing as a universal, I'm not really sure that's the right way to characterize such statements. But it's not really an issue if you consider that in Mahayana ontologies, even particulars (at the very least external particulars, and at the most all particulars) have no real existence, let alone universals. So it can be explained as just a way of speaking, or as a mode of appearance. Dharmakirti was a Mahayanist even though he presented his ideas mostly in terms of Sautranta (from a Tibetan doxographical perspective). Ultimately he was not committed to the reality of entities like atoms and momentary consciousnesses which the Hinayana schools accepted as ultimate truths.

You're inclined to accept numbers as real universals, because 4+3=7 is true of all particular cases. I agree that's compelling--if we take the particular cases to be real. But if particulars are not real, how can universals be real?

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Wayfarer » Thu Jun 16, 2016 11:19 am

Astus wrote:Buddhism is filled with universals, they are known as dharmas.
But Platonic universals are not at all like the dharmas. Dharmas are the 'constituents of experience', they are grounded in 12 links of dependent origination and the conditioned nature of perception. They're the momentary constituents of experience as revealed in meditative insight. That is why Buddhist atoms are of momentary duration, constantly arising and passing away, not at all like imperishable point-particles of classical atomism (which Buddhists have always argued against and in which they have been vindicated by physics, in my opinion.)

Whereas, the Greek tradition is focussed on nature and the ideas of natural causes and natural order - why things happen, not so much in a karmic sense, but in terms we would now describe as 'natural philosophy' or science.
gad rgyangs wrote:Buddhism, like Christianity, is a religion based on revelation. Dont expect it to make sense philosophically.
The two philosophical schools that most appeal to me are Mahayana Buddhism and Christian Platonism. They are both mystical but also philosophically rigourous. I am drawn towards both - hence the OP!
Vima Repa wrote:But if particulars are not real, how can universals be real?
Thanks, interesting post. I think the spirit behind the Greek approach is to find underlying causes. Recall the original meaning of 'rationality' was 'ratio', in the sense that 'ratios' defined the relationships of shapes and forms in the Pythagorean tradition. Of course ancient Indian schools also pursued such ideas but the Pythagorean and Platonic approach was more consciously mathematical and more consciously concerned with natural causes, with how things work in nature, rather than with the dynamics of suffering and experience, as were the Indian philosophers.

So in the ancient West, there was the idea of the divine hierarchy, the 'great chain of being'. There was a ladder of being, with material things at the bottom, and the One/Divine/Nous at the top. So this understood everything in terms of 'degrees of reality' - the 'objects of sense' were the least real, shadows on the wall of the cave, whereas the divine intellect, Nous, was reality itself.

Image

The 'universals' were thought to be of a higher order than particular things; the philosopher, through understanding the principles of things, ascended to the truth. I think that is the remote ancestor of what came to be scientific reasoning and what came to be called scientific law, although of course nowadays those who call themselves scientists have generally forgotten that, as science is now thoroughly severed from its sapiential origins.

Of course, Buddhism doesn't see it like that although I think there is still an hierarchy in the classical Buddhist worldview. That is why, for example, you have gradations of beings - animals, humans, yaksas and nagas, bodhisattvas, then the Buddha. The enlightened see things 'as they truly are' whereas us putthajana are infatuated with illusory things. So in that respect, there is also the idea of the 'ascent', but through jnana rather than through the externally-focused reason of Western philosophy.

Besides that, the key difference is that in the Platonic view, there is a higher reality 'behind' or 'above' this reality, which is only a shadowy projection of the Real; whereas in Buddhism, this reality is the only reality but it is constantly misapprehended because of mental defilements. Therefore the ordinary people don't see things 'as they truly are' but always through the veil of ignorance which obscures the real nature of things as being empty/luminous.
Only practice with no gaining idea ~ Suzuki-roshi

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Astus » Thu Jun 16, 2016 11:44 am

Queequeg wrote:Particulars are derivative of dharmas?
Particulars are themselves dharmas...
By particulars I meant ordinary things like chairs, shoes, coats, and sandwiches. There is no dharma for one particular chair, nor for chairs in general, but only the dharmas of name and form, and from those basic dharmas come the illusion of individual objects and beings.
you're talking about sravakayana conceptions of irreducible dharmas?
Dharmas are the basic elements in Mahayana as well. The difference is whether they are considered with or without self-being (svabhava).
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Astus » Thu Jun 16, 2016 11:52 am

Wayfarer wrote:But Platonic universals are not at all like the dharmas. Dharmas are the 'constituents of experience', they are grounded in 12 links of dependent origination and the conditioned nature of perception. They're the momentary constituents of experience as revealed in meditative insight.
Dharmas are universal in the sense that they are the same for everyone. As for their momentary and empty nature, those are universal qualities of the dharmas. So, while the definitions are not the same in one aspect, they have a similar role as the basis of appearances.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Vima Repa » Thu Jun 16, 2016 12:00 pm

Wayfarer wrote:
Vima Repa wrote:But if particulars are not real, how can universals be real?
Thanks, interesting post. I think the spirit behind the Greek approach is to find underlying causes. Recall the original meaning of 'rationality' was 'ratio', in the sense that 'ratios' defined the relationships of shapes and forms in the Pythagorean tradition. Of course ancient Indian schools also pursued such ideas but the Pythagorean and Platonic approach was more consciously mathematical and more consciously concerned with natural causes, with how things work in nature, rather than with the dynamics of suffering and experience, as were the Indian philosophers.

So in the ancient West, there was the idea of the divine hierarchy, the 'great chain of being'. There was a ladder of being, with material things at the bottom, and the One/Divine/Nous at the top. So this understood everything in terms of 'degrees of reality' - the 'objects of sense' were the least real, shadows on the wall of the cave, whereas the divine intellect, Nous, was reality itself....

Besides that, the key difference is that in the Platonic view, there is a higher reality 'behind' or 'above' this reality, which is only a shadowy projection of the Real....
The Buddhist nontheistic approach is to see things as being built from the bottom up, as opposed to descending from the top down. So "universals" are just conceptual entities imputed on sensory experience. We construct them on top of our sensory perception.

Platonism sees being as "trickling down" from the eternal One, through the Forms, then numbers, finally to the sensibles. Each step is progressively less "real" because it is less eternal and perfect. At the bottom of this hierarchy is a kind of undifferentiated mass, the "multitude," which is non-being because it is characterized by constant, Heraclitean change.

It's all in keeping with the Greek distinction between being and becoming. Plato's intuition, which he must have got from the Eleatics, was that the sensibles which are subject to change (becoming) are unreal as compared to abstract, eternal entities (being), which are real.

I wouldn't characterize this as a Greek versus Indian thing, however. First of all, we see in Advaita Vedanta an Indian monism which is strikingly parallel to Platonic thought. The ultimate truth is an eternal monad, while the unreal relative is maya, the illusion of sensory experience. Plato would have liked this scheme.

The other thing is that characterizing Indian thought as religious or introverted, as opposed to Greek extroversion, is simplistic and does a disservice to its empirical and mathematical side. Indian thinkers were also interested in economics, politics, medicine. And the Greeks also had itinerant, renunciant contemplatives.
... whereas in Buddhism, this reality is the only reality but it is constantly misapprehended because of mental defilements.
The paramartha-satya of Mahayana Buddhism is totally different from the monistic absolute of Platonism. What you describe as Buddhism is actually more like Advaita Vedanta.
Of course, Buddhism doesn't see it like that although I think there is still an hierarchy in the classical Buddhist worldview.
That's a completely separate thing from how the different traditions treat the problem of universals. Pretty much every religion has a cosmological hierarchy. At the very least there is this simple one: god(s) > mortals.

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Vima Repa » Thu Jun 16, 2016 12:11 pm

Astus wrote:Dharmas are universal in the sense that they are the same for everyone. As for their momentary and empty nature, those are universal qualities of the dharmas. So, while the definitions are not the same in one aspect, they have a similar role as the basis of appearances.
That's not what "universal" means in the context of the problem of universals.

From Wiki:
In metaphysics, a universal is what particular things have in common, namely characteristics or qualities. In other words, universals are repeatable or recurrent entities that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things.[1] For example, suppose there are two chairs in a room, each of which is green. These two chairs both share the quality of "chairness," as well as greenness or the quality of being green; In other words, they share a "universal". There are three major kinds of qualities or characteristics: types or kinds (e.g. mammal), properties (e.g. short, strong), and relations (e.g. father of, next to). These are all different types of universal.[2]
Universals are hypothetical real entities that imbue particulars with their qualities. A particular chair is a chair by virtue of its participating in the universal "chairness." In Buddhism, it's most certainly not the case that a dharma is impermanent by virtue of participating an abstract, eternal universal of "impermanence." This is exactly the sort of purely speculative philosophical entity that Buddhist thinkers have questioned for millennia.

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Astus » Thu Jun 16, 2016 12:34 pm

Vima Repa wrote:That's not what "universal" means in the context of the problem of universals.

From Wiki:
In metaphysics, a universal is what particular things have in common, namely characteristics or qualities. In other words, universals are repeatable or recurrent entities that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things.
Particular things have the dharmas in common, and those are their true characteristics and qualities. Dharmas are repeatable and recurrent as well, they exist in all the different experiences.
Universals are hypothetical real entities that imbue particulars with their qualities.
Can be applied to the dharmas as well.
A particular chair is a chair by virtue of its participating in the universal "chairness."
Buddhism approaches from a different angle, where both "chairness" and "a chair" are superficial, and the underlying universal qualities of dharmas are the true reality. However, just because it's the other way around, it does not mean they are not alike.
In Buddhism, it's most certainly not the case that a dharma is impermanent by virtue of participating an abstract, eternal universal of "impermanence." This is exactly the sort of purely speculative philosophical entity that Buddhist thinkers have questioned for millennia.
The dharmas are the true realities whence illusory, conventional appearances are abstracted.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Queequeg » Thu Jun 16, 2016 12:39 pm

Astus wrote:
Queequeg wrote:Particulars are derivative of dharmas?
Particulars are themselves dharmas...
By particulars I meant ordinary things like chairs, shoes, coats, and sandwiches. There is no dharma for one particular chair, nor for chairs in general, but only the dharmas of name and form, and from those basic dharmas come the illusion of individual objects and beings.
Where can I find a textual source that explains this?
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Expedient Means Chapter

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Astus » Thu Jun 16, 2016 1:02 pm

Queequeg wrote:Where can I find a textual source that explains this?
It's how the conventional (sammuti) and ultimate truth (paramattha sacca) are differentiated in abhidhamma.

"Different characteristics of rupa can be experienced through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body-sense and mind. These characteristics are real since they can be experienced. We use conventional terms such as 'body' and 'table'; both have the characteristic of hardness which can be experienced through touch. In this way we can prove that the characteristic of hardness is the same, no matter whether it is in the body or in the table. Hardness is a paramattha dhamma; 'body' and 'table' are not paramattha dhammas but only concepts. We take it for granted that the body stays and we take it for self, but what we call 'body' are only different rupas arising and falling away. The conventional term 'body' may delude us about reality. We will know the truth if we learn to experience different characteristics of rupa when they appear."
(Abhidhamma in daily life, ch 1)

Also I can recommend Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation (and a great introduction in it) of A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Queequeg » Thu Jun 16, 2016 2:41 pm

Astus wrote:
Queequeg wrote:Where can I find a textual source that explains this?
It's how the conventional (sammuti) and ultimate truth (paramattha sacca) are differentiated in abhidhamma.

"Different characteristics of rupa can be experienced through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body-sense and mind. These characteristics are real since they can be experienced. We use conventional terms such as 'body' and 'table'; both have the characteristic of hardness which can be experienced through touch. In this way we can prove that the characteristic of hardness is the same, no matter whether it is in the body or in the table. Hardness is a paramattha dhamma; 'body' and 'table' are not paramattha dhammas but only concepts. We take it for granted that the body stays and we take it for self, but what we call 'body' are only different rupas arising and falling away. The conventional term 'body' may delude us about reality. We will know the truth if we learn to experience different characteristics of rupa when they appear."
(Abhidhamma in daily life, ch 1)

Also I can recommend Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation (and a great introduction in it) of A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma.
Thank you.
I think I have that... abhidhamma... have to dust it off...
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Expedient Means Chapter

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Queequeg » Thu Jun 16, 2016 6:07 pm

Wayfarer wrote:I have the view that the number 7, for instance, is a real thing (using the word 'thing' metaphorically). But 7 must equal the sum of 4 and 3 anywhere in the world, or in any other world, for that matter; and I can't accept that this is simply a matter of a 'conventional truth'.
I don't understand it, but I've been told that natural numbers don't stand up to analysis. Some guys, apparently, literally lost their minds over this.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principia_Mathematica
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Expedient Means Chapter

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Queequeg » Thu Jun 16, 2016 6:12 pm

This is a little off topic...

Astus, my understanding is that the real dharmas you refer to arise in the contact between sense object and sense apparatus. Red, for instance, arises on the eye seeing something 'red'. Red, however, is nothing more than the sensation of red. The object itself is not red, nor is it not not red... it is inconveivable.

So then what you're describing as a Buddhist universal is the consciousness that arises on contact.

These are ideas that I only vaguely understand, so just trying to understand what you are writing.
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Expedient Means Chapter

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Kaccāni » Thu Jun 16, 2016 9:36 pm

I'll try an "academic opinion" ;-)

Ontology is a human creation. With use of instruments and abstraction there comes language. Now concepts (here: words and their thought of "real-world-counterparts") can be recombined in any way one sees fit, wether the description resembles something that can be experienced or not. I can ask for Mars inhabitants or lightsabres as long as I see fit. It also becomes possible to pose questions that were never relevant before this recombination has been done (by the mind). As there was no natural occurence of it, there was nothing that one would have been able to care (or worried) about. The concept was nonexistent, and all phenomena that only arise because of it, were too. You don't know what you don't know.

But then there was that question. What are we? What is consciousness? Where does this world come from? What happens after death? Now it needs to be cared about.

Examples for what I mean:
What are we? Conventionally, whatever we define us to be, because every label that is answering the What? question is a human-born assignment. Otherwise we just appear to "be" (again, a man-made label for an experience).
What is consciousness? (a man-made label for ... an experience).
Where does this world come from? (Illegal question. "Where" is only defined within "this world".)
What happens after death? (Death of what? Body? Decays, would the others say. From a subjective standpoint: Illegal question. "What" can only point to experience, they come through the 5 senses, ... .)

One can make universals more than "labels that point to repeatable experiences". But that "make" means creating a belief, within a human mind. Not to mention all those other philosophical schools (or this is going to end up the length of a paper I once wrote on them). Ultimately, there is no way for human beings ever to leave first person perspective as everything boils down to experience. The more it can be repeated, the more fact-ish it becomes. Unless it is accepted and treated as fact, where it is forgotten that it can only ever be fact-ish, or that facts, as human creations, can never leave the human perspective.

So with the proper perspective, I guess many Buddhist "concepts" can be regarded nominalist as well as materialist, depending on the current point of view. But aren't "Buddhis concepts" only "concepts to talk about Buddhism", and "Buddhist concepts" a misconception in the first place? In my view, Buddhism is a discipline per se. It often enough does not care, emphasizing, that in the end all are the same, and the meta-dialogue is just another phenomenon that appears to occur, not more, not less.

Ok, I have a little time, let's do some on-line comparisons with Buddhism:

Vitalism: No, if one primary thing, then Buddha's point of view (together with that first turning emptiness) was one big refutation of Vitalism.

Mechanism: Not in a mechanical nuts and bolts fashion. But cause and fruit: yes. But more complex than the mechanical "linear" relationships.

Holism/Emergentism: If you want to call the Buddhist fruit something that emerges from Preconditions, then maybe yes.

Reductionism/Localism: No, rather something along the lines of "Integrationism", bracketing whatever occurs. Of course, that also "reduces" attention to presence, sort of. Schools vary.

Individualism: No. Not in essence. But not of the same material, but the same nature. Modern thinking could say classes with instances, transcending the ancient model of archetypes. But no towards souls, only to momentum and potentiality. But the term sort of changed. Individualism originally meant "cannot be further reduced". In that sense, Buddhism may be discussed. Today's individualism refers to separate beings with unique sets of properties. That's not Buddha's message.

Materialism: Some Hinayana schools are pretty close to an atomic description of reality, quite early. One way to overcome the mythical vitalism mentioned above that was to be refuted by saying "has no inherent existence of its own".

Idealism: May be argued in Tantra and Dzogchen. In my opinion Sutrayana is quite the opposite: Ideas (as a false-knowledge appearance of ignorance) spawn defilements, but not everything is mere imagination.

Functionalism: May be argued, yes. Dependent arising is a form of functionalism. Then again, functionalism is a purpose-chain. I see no way to bring that together with Buddha, the pros and cons would supposedly fill a book. Dependent arising is beyond any purpose-definition. If the conditions are met, it may happen according to potentiality, purpose or not, purpose being a human attribution. "So that"-stories.

Mysterianism: Double-edged sword. In principle, along with vitalism, Buddhism sort of refutes mysterianism. But it is not so easy. Buddhism also asks not to pose senseless questions. In that sense, something will always remain a mystery, unsolvable. So yes, in that aspect, mysterianism could apply.

Determinism: Ys far as every phenomenon is caused by a set of conditions: yes. But not predictably as determinists claim. Rather:

Constructivism: properties emerge from preconditions, experience/the mental thing and the other point of view remain "structurally coupled". Arguably closest match Hinayana Schools, if "structural coupling" resembles two sides of the same.


Monism: Gnah. The most difficult one. Superficially: yes. But monists claim everything is made up of one *substance*. And many Buddhist schools claim nothing has substance! So not even here ...

Dualism: No. The main Argument of even Madhyamika with Vedanta or Hindu Schools appears to be that there is no separate soul.

Behaviorism: One could get the impression, in some Mahayana schools, that it's only about what is expressed or behavior exhibited. Your dzogchen view may vary.

Mentalism: In a way, yes. If ChNN says you're not realized if you cannot control the elements, that reminds of a form of mentalism. Hinayana: As far as pacifying the mind goes, yes, but outside the senses there doesn't seem too much care.

Objectivism: Tough one. One could confuse ultimate truth with some sort of objectivism, if "ultimate" would not point beyond objects at all. In Zen: What is? *THIS!* Some quality of objectivism in that statement. But then again, the qualities that are argued about are reduced to emptiness. That makes the whole objectivism part sort of pointless.

Subjectivism: Maybe experiential subjectivism. But not of the form that first person experience is the only fact that can be stated, but rather the usual experience that is being made, and that claiming facts outside of that experience also is a first person operation.

Innatism: The concept of rebirth that is argued may not go completely without innatism. But there are two arguments against: 1. Buddha's message is to terminate that innate stuff and break free from the cycle of rebirth, like (You don't want to be reborn? Done. Just mean it. And give up that eternal soul hallucination.) and 2. dependent arising means it is not there before it has dependently arisen. Only its potentiality was. Add there is no higher force that places a priori ideas into human beings. Maybe there is Karma to create them, though.

Perceptionism: The contents of the mind are created from experience. Well, sort of yes. Conditioning includes experience. But pre-Tantra may argue that the body, which is dependently arisen, also influences the contents of the mind. And it is difficult to include that in the experience (via the 6 senses), maybe as a secondary factor.

To go back to nominalism: Hinayana illusion may fit, as concepts are drawn up which have no real-world resemblance are part of the problem to start with. So you can ask unanswerable questions and defile from them. With regard to the emptiness debate I would refute that. In the Hinayana debate it appears to be more a debate of non-vitalism, and in the Mahayana debate it appears to be a debate of "no substance". The latter is a close match, but not the same.

So, to conclude: Buddha had his very own way of refuting vitalism, which was the mythic (e.g. Vedic, Ionian or early Bön) default, with tons of gods, rituals and prayers. Thales took a different approach, ending in our academia. But Buddha's argument does not fit well in any of the above dichotomies, as they are all discussed with respect to phenomena that stem from outside Buddhism. One needs to argue with Platonic, not Buddhist ideas when it comes to nominalism. If some things appear to have the same "type", a Buddhist may answer "drop that concept of type, or show <type> to me".

Best wishes
Kc
Shush! I'm doing nose-picking practice!

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Wayfarer » Fri Jun 17, 2016 12:06 pm

Astus wrote:Particular things have the dharmas in common, and those are their true characteristics and qualities. Dharmas are repeatable and recurrent as well, they exist in all the different experiences.
I understand that, but that doesn't make the meaning of 'dhammas' the same as what is meant by 'universals'. You're stretching the meaning of the term.
Astus wrote:The dharmas are the true realities whence illusory, conventional appearances are abstracted.
Which is exactly why the Abhidharma schools were called 'realist schools'. Substitute 'atom' for 'dharmas' and that statement could be made by the Greek (and early Indian) atomists.

Just because dhammas are the supposed explanatory sub-stratum of experience, doesn't mean that they correspond to what was designated 'universals' in Western philosophy. They're nearer to atomism.
Queequeg wrote:
Wayfarer wrote:I have the view that the number 7, for instance, is a real thing (using the word 'thing' metaphorically). But 7 must equal the sum of 4 and 3 anywhere in the world, or in any other world, for that matter; and I can't accept that this is simply a matter of a 'conventional truth'.
I don't understand it, but I've been told that natural numbers don't stand up to analysis. Some guys, apparently, literally lost their minds over this.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principia_Mathematica
I think you're referring to a British documentary about some pure maths problems which did supposedly drive some mathematicians off the deep end. (I picked up the DVD in the video store a few times but never borrowed it.)

But Platonism with respect to natural numbers is not nearly so far out as that. It is simply the belief that 'number is real' - in the same sense that chairs and apples and pens are real, but as 'intelligible objects'. They are not mental fabrications or social conventions but are real in their own right, albeit in a different way to material objects. It's the 'different way' that empiricism can't deal with; there are no 'different ways' for things to exist according to it. But there have always been platonists amongst mathematicians.
Frege believed that number is real in the sense that it is quite independent of thought: 'thought content exists independently of thinking "in the same way", he says "that a pencil exists independently of grasping it.
Gödel was a mathematical realist, a Platonist. He believed that what makes mathematics true is that it's descriptive—not of empirical reality, of course, but of an abstract reality. Mathematical intuition is something analogous to a kind of sense perception. In his essay "What Is Cantor's Continuum Hypothesis?", Gödel wrote that we're not seeing things that just happen to be true, we're seeing things that must be true. The world of abstract entities is a necessary world—that's why we can deduce our descriptions of it through pure reason.
https://www.edge.org/conversation/godel ... ical-truth

Of course, the reality of number is one of those arguments that can never really be resolved - just the kind of metaphysical debate that Buddhists sensibly avoid. But I find it interesting.
Kaccāni wrote:Ontology is a human creation.
Thanks! Interesting and very comprehensive post. The derivation of the word 'ontology' is actually from the first-person participle of the Greek word for 'to be' - which is 'I am'. So 'ontology' is strictly speaking the study of being in the first person sense - not the study of what kinds of things exists.
Kaccāni wrote: if some things appear to have the same "type", a Buddhist may answer "drop that concept of type, or show <type> to me".
There is a method in Buddhist logic called 'apoha'. From the Wiki entry on Buddhist logic:
The word apoha…means the 'exclusion of negation of others (ataddvyavrtti)'. For example, the word 'cow' gives its own meaning only by the exclusion of all those things which are other than cow. Dingnaga declares that a word can express its own meaning only by repudiating opposite meanings, just as words like 'krtaka' (i.e. that which has origin) designate their meanings only through the exclusion of their opposite like 'akraka' (i.e. that which does not have origin).

Dingnaga admits that apoha can also possess some characteristics of the realists' universals such as oneness, enternity, complete subsistence in each individual, etc. He apprehends the concept of universal through the negation of its non-self. He explains that if the non-self of a universal is absent in a locus, then its presence in that locus can be inferred. For example, a cow is qualified by the deniability of the non-cow. This concept of Dingnaga's is similar to that Hegel who also believes that the universality of a concept is posited through its negativity.

Apoha is not the object of sense perception (pratyaksa). It is apprehensible only through word or inference. In essence, Dingnaga uses anyyapoha as a substitute for universal. The concept of apoha depends upon the law of contradiction. The words blue and non-blue negate each other, simply because they are opposite to each other. According to Dingnaga, a similar exclusion of others is due to the non-apprehension of the meaning of a particular word in other words. A particular word excludes the other particular words because its own meaning is not apprehended in the other ones. For example, the word simsapa-tree excludes the word palasa-tree because its own meaning is not available in the latter one.
I think this is as near as Buddhism gets to acknowledging universals.
Only practice with no gaining idea ~ Suzuki-roshi

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Re: On Buddhism and Nominalism

Post by Astus » Fri Jun 17, 2016 12:29 pm

Wayfarer wrote:I understand that, but that doesn't make the meaning of 'dhammas' the same as what is meant by 'universals'. You're stretching the meaning of the term.
...
Just because dhammas are the supposed explanatory sub-stratum of experience, doesn't mean that they correspond to what was designated 'universals' in Western philosophy. They're nearer to atomism.
Then it turns out that universals are not found in Buddhism.
I think this is as near as Buddhism gets to acknowledging universals.
The apoha idea seems to actually negate any possibility of universals. If a chair is defined by every non-chair, and all those non-chairs are again defined by everything other than those non-chairs, then we find how all definitions are non-definitions, and there is nothing defined by anything. This is basically another way to say that all phenomena are conditioned, and therefore empty.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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