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The Development of Hegel and Nāgārjuna’s Dialectic

Lecturer: Brendan Duncan

Originally Taught: Summer School 2023

Although the origin of dialectic is typically placed very early in the history of philosophy—either in Parmenides, Heraclitus, or Plato—dialectic arguably became a principal object of philosophical consideration only in the 19th century with Hegel. At the very least a claim could be made that Hegel’s is the proper name that, even to this day, is most intimately associated with dialectic. In the tradition of Buddhist logic and ontology, however, dialectic reached the apogee of its importance much earlier. For while the great systematic philosophies of Buddhism came later, an argument could be made that dialectic as such reached its peak in the 2nd century with the founder of Madhyamaka Buddhism: Nāgārjuna.

The aim of this course is to introduce and trace the historical development of Hegel and Nāgārjuna’s concept of dialectic. “Concept” in the singular, because it is the contention of this course that, despite the nearly two-thousand years between them, Hegel and Nāgārjuna understood dialectic in a substantially similar way—a convergence which is not, however, a coincidence, for the two share a common point of reference. In various places throughout his work Hegel states that the foremost antecedent to his notion of dialectic is the sceptical operation of Pyrrhonism—a claim that might strike us as surprising, given the normative story of the origin of dialectic. But in recent decades Buddhist studies has arrived at a consensus: there was some form of historical contact and consequent philosophical influence of Pyrrhonian scepticism and early Buddhism on one another. This course therefore follows, with an eye to the genesis of the concept of dialectic, two possible lines of historical influence: one extending from the earliest Buddhist texts through Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus to Hegel, and another running from Pyrrho and his Greek influences through these same Buddhist texts to Nāgārjuna.

Week 1. Introduction to the concept of dialectic

This first week will introduce Hegel and Nāgārjuna’s notions of dialectic and argue for their substantial similarity. Several key logical and ontological terms related to dialectic will also be introduced and discussed. On Nāgārjuna’s side these are: negation, svabhāva, dependent origination and emptiness; on Hegel’s: negation again, the logical conditions of determinateness, the notion of finite and infinite thought-contents and the related distinction between Verstand and Vernunft.

Primary Texts

  • Hegel, Encyclopaedia Logic, §79-82, trans. Suchting, Geraets and Harris.
  • Nāgārjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika, chapter 24, in Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, trans. Jay L. Garfield.

Further Readings

  • Nāgārjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika, chapter 2, trans. Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura.
  • Jan Westerhoff, Nāgārjuna: A Philosophical Introduction, chapter 2: “interpretations of Svabhava,” 19-45.
  • Tsongkhapa, “The Actual Object to Be Negated,” in The Great Treatise on the States of the Path to Enlightenment vol. 1, trans. Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee.

Week 2. Greek dialectic before Pyrrho

The second week will be devoted to the early conditions of dialectic on the Greek side. We begin by considering the pre-Socratic origins of argument forms essential to both the Late Pyrrhonism of Sextus Empiricus and Madhyamaka–most importantly reductio ad absurdum. But the bulk of the session will be devoted to Hegel’s puzzling views about the sceptical principle in Greek philosophy before Pyrrho. Hegel approvingly cites Diogenes Laertius’ claim that figures as diverse as Homer, Euripedes, Zeno, Democritus and Plato may all be counted among the sceptics. Moreover, we consider Hegel’s striking reading of Plato’s Parmenides, a text he calls the most ‘perfect and self-sustaining document of genuine scepticism.’

Primary Texts

  • Hegel, “On the Relationship of Skepticism to Philosophy,” in Between Kant and Hegel: Texts in the Development of Post-Kantian Idealism, trans. H.S. Harris.

Further Reading

  • Hegel, “Heraclitus,” “Plato,” especially section c. on Dialectic, and “Skepticism Proper: Pyrrho, Aenesidemus, Sextus Empiricus,” in Lectures on the History of Philosophy vol. 2, trans. Robert F. Brown; pages 70-82, 175-224 and 302-316, respectively.

Week 3. Indian scepticism, materialism and logic before Buddhism

Week three initiates our discussion of the Buddhist-Pyrrhonist nexus determinative on Hegel and Nāgārjuna. We begin by looking at certain Buddhist texts from the Pali canon normally taken as representative of Early Buddhism. There are two purposes to this. First, we will try to discern to what extent pre-Buddhist Indian atheism, scepticism, materialism, and logic were formative on Early-Buddhism. These topics, however, are the subject of notorious scholarly disputation. Fundamental issues of chronology concerning the Buddha’s life and death, the Pali Canon, the relationship of Early Buddhism to non-Buddhist Indian philosophy, and even the normative sense of the term “Early Buddhism” itself are live and uncertain issues in Buddhist studies. We discuss these debates in some detail. Our second concern will be to identify elements within the Pali canon determinative on Madhyamaka, leading into our discussion in week four of similar elements that may have been determinative on Pyrrhonism.

Primary Texts

  • “Samaññaphala Sutta”, in The Long Discourses of the Buddha, trans. Maurice Walsh.
  • Suttanipata, selections, trans. Bhikku Bodhi.

Further Readings

  • Luis O. Gómez, “Proto-Madhyamika in the Pali Canon.”

Week 4. Early Pyrrhonism and Early Buddhism

Week four focuses on Pyrrhonism itself. It has four parts. First, we consider the historical evidence of Pyrrho’s association with India, as well as the character of the Buddhism he would have encountered there. Second we consider the extent to which we can disambiguate Early Pyrrhonism from the Late Pyrrhonism of Sextus Empiricus. Third, we further distinguish Pyrrhonism of both kinds from the erroneous but still widespread view of scepticism–Pyrrhonism, on the view we will consider, has nothing whatsoever to do with the “denial” of the “external world.” Finally, we take a close look at some texts from the Pali canon in order to bring into view certain striking doctrinal commonalities of Early Pyrrhonism with Early Buddhism.

Primary Texts

  • “Scepticism,” especially passage F. by Aristocles, in The Hellenistic Philosophers, trans. A.A. Long and D.N. Sedley, pages 15-18.
  • The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha III.136, trans. Bhikku Bodhi.

Further Readings

  • Christopher Beckwith, Greek Buddha, chapter 1 and appendices A and B. See also Adrian Kuzminkski, “Early Buddhism Reconsidered,” the reply from Charles Goodman, “Neither Scythian nor Greek,” which in the main responds to Beckwith’s book, and then Beckwith’s reply to Goodman, “Early Buddhism and Incommensurability.”

Week 5. Late Pyrrhonism and Madhyamaka

Week five looks at the relationship of Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka to Pyrrhonism, especially the Late Pyrrhonism of Sextus Empiricus. The similarity between Madhyamaka and Pyrrhonism, in point of doctrine and mode of argumentation, has been well documented by a number of scholars. We discuss this convergence in some detail and consider potential explanations. Moreover, we return to Hegel’s identification of dialectic and scepticism and argue that the principle of dialectic that Hegel claims to discern in Pyrrhonism is better attested in Nāgārjuna. We conclude our course by discussing the notion of dialectic that has emerged from the historical treatment and suggest some consequences of this result for the uptake and criticism of dialectic by three thinkers: Adorno, Deleuze and Jameson.

Primary Texts

  • Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, selections, trans. Benson Mates.
  • Nāgārjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika, selections, trans. Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura.

Further Readings

  • Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought, chapters 15-18, but especially chapter 17.
  • Adrian Kuzminski, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism, chapter 2. See also Kuzminski’s Pyrrhonian Buddhism: A Philosophical Reconstruction.