Prof Joseph S. O’Leary (Sophia University Tokyo), “Dialectical Negation in Nagarjuna and Hegel: An East-West Encounter on the Terrain of a Wider Rationality”
In their quest to overcome dualistic fixations (those of Abhidarma scholasticism in one case, those of Kant and his followers in the other) both Nagarjuna and Kant use a dialectical method whereby the fixated standpoint runs aground on its own inner contradictions. In both cases the mind itself heals the mind’s self-inflicted wounds.
In Hegel, sacrifice of rigid self-understanding is a constant motor of the spirit’s advance to freedom, so the logical dialectic is both powered by and empowers a spiritual journey. Nagarjuna’s negative dialectic, analogously, is an instrument of freedom as it dismantles one substantialist delusion after another, especially the illusions of self-identity.
While the cumulative, spiral-shaped movement of Hegel’s dialectic generates a systematic vision that has no equivalent in Nagarjuna, it leaves in its wake a graveyard of delusions just as Nagarjuna does, and it forges a seamless unitary style of thinking as Nagarjuna also does. In Hegel the discredited positions live on as dissolved and transformed within higher and freer forms of thinking, and in Nagarjuna they are retained as conventional truths that can usefully be deployed in appropriate contexts.
For Nagarjuna the final destiny of thought is a nirvanic “quiescence of fabrications.” For Hegel it is the ‘Idea,’ defined as the total integration of the Concept with the concrete realities that are its content. Even at this level, the two thinkers are not totally foreign to one another, but can generate reciprocal illumination, or reciprocal critique or deconstruction.
The encounter of these two cardinal thinkers of East and West respectively places Hegel’s achievement in a more universal perspective while it vindicates the philosophical coherence of Mahayana Buddhist insights.
Texts: Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, ch. 25: ‘Examination of Nirvana.’ Hegel: some paragraphs from the last chapter of the Phenomenology of Mind, ‘Absolute Knowing.’
Joseph S. O’Leary, an Irish Roman Catholic theologian, has lived in Japan since 1983 and worked at Sophia University, Tokyo, and Nanzan University, Nagoya. Publications include Philosophie occidentale et concepts bouddhistes (Presses Universitaires de France, 2011) and Conventional and Ultimate Truth (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).
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