Literatur | Philosophie | Sprache


Leif Sieben, 2002 | Greppen, LU


The matura thesis “The Apology of Nagarjuna” considers one of the most influential scholars and thinkers of the early Indian period of Buddhism, Nagarjuna, and more specifically, his most renowned work: the Mulamadhyamakakarika (“Verses on the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way”). I offer a short overview of the underlying argumentative structure of the work, the catuskoti (tetralemma), particularly in relation to Graham Priest’s multivalent symbolic notation thereof and his work on paraconsistency, as well as an exemplary exegesis of chapter fifteen (“On Essence”) based on the principal findings of the paper. Positions from inside the Buddhist tradition are compared and contrasted to Classical and modern Western positions to devise an original and multifaceted interpretation.


(I) Is it possible to develop a comprehensive, cogent and holistic interpretation of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (MMK) by incorporating both Buddhist and Western theories? (II) Can or should such a position be considered a paraconsistent one? (III) What philosophical relevance does Nagarjuna have to a modern Western audience?


“The Apology of Nagarjuna” is an attempt at defending this highly influential philosopher, monk, religious leader and thinker of the early Indian period of Buddhism in a mock-trial, wherein positions from inside the Buddhist tradition are critically juxtaposed with Classical and modern Western positions. Three “accusers” (Aristotle, Tsongkhapa, Graham Priest) are confronted with three “defenders” (Sextus Empiricus, Mark Siderits, Ludwig Wittgenstein) in order to derive a meaningful interpretative approach to Nagarjuna’s work. The six different positions are divided between outlines of actually existent positions on the MMK and conceived possible confrontations of Western philosophers with Nagarjuna. A particular focus is put on Nagarjuna’s alleged paraconsistency or willingness to accept contradiction, as discussed in the chapter on the MMK’s fourfold argumentative structure: the catuskoti. Emphasis is also put on Graham Priest’s attempt at formulating the catuskoti in consistent logical notation and his paraconsistent stance towards the work. In addition, the paper contains a short synopsis of Priest’s multivalent Boolean notation of the catuskoti as well as some derivations and proofs. Finally, the findings from the critical analysis are applied in a representative exegesis of one of the chapters of the MMK (chapter fifteen, “On Essence”).


By utilising a many-sided approach to the text, I managed to develop an original but meaningful position towards the MMK. Deriving a sensible logical notation of the catuskoti proved critical in reconstructing Nagarjuna’s argumentation, yet it became clear that the core conclusions of the MMK go against and beyond simple language and logic. Showing how Nagarjuna used language and thought against itself in order to transcend the inevatible limits of language and mind by these very means – thus escaping his own deceitful conception – revealed how the MMK challenges the Western point of view and its pre-conceived certainties. The analysis showed the MMK to be a highly enlightening and multi-layered text with connections to active debates both within and outside of the Buddhist tradition.


By interpreting Nagarja as a Westerner, I risked undervaluing the text’s historical and cultural setting. But considering the MMK as a philosophical as well as a religious text enabled a content- rather than context-based approach. By consciously developing an original position towards the work, I avoided a mere restatement of pre-existent interpretations whilst simultaneously offering a novel – though not baseless – approach to this ancient text. Understanding the MMK necessitated prior examination of the existing literature. Through a multitude of views, I managed to develop a wide though not comprehensive understanding of the text and its key concepts.


Despite its age and cultural context foreign to most Western readers, the MMK offers many challenging but extremely enriching and inspiring insights, demonstrating the limitations of our minds, proving just how developed early Buddhist philosophy already was, and how far it came under Nagarjuna. In particular, Nagarjuna’s work proved fundamental in the development of Buddhism, the fifth-largest religion by population, and would go on to profoundly influence Eastern thought. As difficult as a thorough comprehension of the MMK may be to the Western reader, it is valuable not despite but precisely because of how strange and unfamiliar it is to us.



Würdigung durch den Experten

Prof. Dr. Jens Schlieter

Die Arbeit diskutiert das Werk Mulamadhyamakakarika des indisch-buddhistischen Denkers Nagarjuna mit Hilfe jüngster Debatten in der westlichen Philosophie der Logik. Sowohl die Diskussion der sehr anspruchsvollen logischen Argumentationsweise Nagarjunas, als auch die Idee eines imaginativen Symposiums über Nagarjunas Werk, besetzt mit Philosophen der westlichen wie buddhistischen Tradition, erfolgt auf einem sehr hohen Niveau. Die Arbeit stellt damit einen eigenständigen Beitrag zur komparativen Philosophie dar.



Sonderpreis Paul Scherrer Institut – Forschung auf dem Jungfraujoch




Kantonsschule Luzern
Lehrer: Adrian Häfliger