Nāgārjuna’s philosophy of emptiness and political philosophy: liberty in action
AffiliationSchool of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Faculty of Arts
School of Historical and Philosophical Studies
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationsMendelson, T. (2013). Nāgārjuna’s philosophy of emptiness and political philosophy: liberty in action. PhD thesis, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne.
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2013 Dr. Toby Mendelson
Although the metaphysical, soteriological, semantic and logical implications of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy of emptiness have been widely studied (and practiced) for nearly two millennia, the moral and political implications have generally been left implicit. This thesis is a study of the political implications of Nāgārjuna’s claim that persons and things are empty of svabhāva (substantial self-existence and own self-identity). The primary question I have asked is: What are the primary political implications from Nāgārjuna’s philosophy of emptiness? My primary contention is: That there are clear political implications from Nāgārjuna’s philosophy of emptiness and that these are productive of a tangible, plausible and important normative political task and orientation. Both the question and the contention are controversial, in the sense that one orthodox reading of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy is that it is not a philosophy at all, but rather, a pragmatic or soteriological endeavour to shift interlocutors out of the basic error of thinking conceptually. If Nāgārjuna is interpreted in such a way, there may be political implications of a certain kind (for example, the privileging of an anarchic, deconstructive or quietist kind of politics), but a normative political orientation is rendered impossible. I have argued the contrary thesis, on the basis of a contrary interpretation – that if Nāgārjuna is interpreted as offering a particular philosophical position, then a normative orientation is impossible to avoid. The primary argument of the thesis is to demonstrate this general point, which leads towards a formal, abstract and general normative political task, that of a collective movement from constraint to freedom. The secondary argument of the thesis is far more particular and contextual. It is that there are particular political values or goods resonant with our contemporary 21st century political context which are coherently connected to that more general normative task. These are values associated with the concepts of political liberty and equality.
KeywordsNāgārjuna; emptiness; Buddhism; political philosophy
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