[Buddha-l] Realism, anti-realism and Buddhism

Richard Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Thu May 22 21:57:28 MDT 2008

On Thu, 2008-05-22 at 03:46 -0400, Dan Lusthaus wrote:

> First, the criterion for "realist" you draw on derives directly from Frege's
> referentiality theory (the Bedeutung of any proposition is true or false).

The profile of realism and anti-realism was based on observations made
by Michael Dummett. I think the realist position he describes has a much
longer ancestry than Frege's Sinn und Bedeutung. I think it goes back at
least as far as Aristotle.

> This sort of two-valued logic was
> considered naive by many Indian philosophers, not just Buddhists but Jains,
> etc., as well.

I am not aware of any Indian philosophers who rejected two-valued logic.
The Jainas certainly did not. Their syaad-vaada is entirely bivalent,
although it is based on the observation that truth claims are always
made from a particular perspective. They thus anticipated the rejection
of what people nowadays like to call "the view from nowhere."

> Candrakirti would be "neither realist nor antirealist." And he would insist
> Nagarjuna is the same. He would also remind us that he does not hold to an
> alternate option either.

But in making this claim about himself, would he be speaking the truth?
I know what he SAYS about himself, but I find it is not always wise to
accept people's descriptions of themselves. I am especially wary of

> Asanga and Vasubandhu -- and hence classical Yogacara -- would be, as you
> recognize for Dharmakirti (who is also a Yogacara), critical realists.

I see not evidence that Dharmakirti was a Yogacara. He is impossible to
fit into any doctrinal pigeonhole. Mostly he was a polemical Buddhist
who had tremendous confidence in the unique truth of a very minimalistic
version of Buddhist dogma and a robust contempt for those who disagreed
with him.

>  I
> would add Dignaga to that list.

I see him as a radical skeptic, far less dogmatic than Dharmakirti, and
perhaps even harder to put into a pigeonhole. There's not even a lot of
what he says that sounds especially Buddhist. Maybe he was a kind of
Emersonian freethinker.

> Chan/Zen would agree with both Candrakirti and Asanga -- depending on what
> they had for breakfast that morning. If you ask a Chan master which he is, a
> realist or antirealist, he might reply: "Get real!" or "Do you REALLY want
> to know?"

That seems about right.

> As for old Gotama, he'd wonder how such a question could possibly be useful
> for eliminating dukkha.

He might indeed wonder that, but I bet he would be smart enough to see
that arriving at a good answer has everything to do with the elimination
of dukkha. A great deal of discontent and frustration (not to mention
contempt of others) is generated from an overconfidence in there being
just one right way of seeing things. It could well be that realism is a
better prescription for dukkha than anti-realism, and that anti-realism
is a better prescription for dukkha-nirodha. Perhaps the reverse is
true. It could even be that different people need different
prescriptions for the malady of dukkha. Je ne sais pas. 

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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