Footpaths Towards Deconstruction - Part 13

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By 2017-03-19

By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake

Today's column embarks on a risky venture, to point out some parallels and convergences of interest between deconstruction and some Indian approaches to language and meaning. The aim is not to argue that deconstruction and the Indian thought ways referred to, follow the selfsame path. That is clearly not the case. Deconstruction as a philosophy and mode of inquiry emerged from Western intellectual traditions and there are clear differences between Derrida and ancient Indian ways of thought. My point is a far more modest one – to demonstrate that there are certain detectable convergences of interest between the two.

Ancient Indian investigations into language and meaning were not foreign to post structuralist thinkers. For example, Jacques Lacan, in his book 'Ecrits', refers to ancient Indian poetics when discussing the playfulness associated with language. Similarly, one can draw certain parallels between the thought of the eminent Indian philosopher of language Bhartrihari and deconstruction, although it should be noted that there are significant differences as well.

The focus in this column is on the work of Nagarjuna and his approach to language, the meaning and communication of which, has clear similarities with those of Derrida. Nagarjuna (150 – 200 A.D) is held in the highest esteem by Buddhist scholars both in India and outside. He exercised a profound influence on the thought and imagination of scholars devoted to Buddhist studies. His formulations have had a far-reaching impact on scholars from India, China, Japan Korea, Tibet as well as the West.


'The Mula Madhyamika Karina' is Nagarjuna's magnum opus and it displays the author's deep understanding of Buddhism as well as his argumentative and interpretive skills. This text contains many important concepts such as emptiness or devoidness, relativity, ambivalences in the relationship between case and effect, misrepresentation, the idea of time. To be sure, these are all concepts that hold a deep fascination for deconstructive thinkers. The way Nagarjuna has framed some of these concepts bears a resemblance to the orientation of Derrida and other deconstructionists.

The 'Mula Madhyamika Karina' is an interpretive work, which displays Nagarjuna's understanding of the essence of Buddhist thought as an epistemology. He has sought to illuminate the human meaning of Buddhism from a largely Mahayana perspective.

This is a demanding text that needs careful unpacking. It is terse and compact; in his desire for terseness he has eschewed the rhetorical opulence that characterized some of the writings of this period.

The idea of emptiness or devoidness is central to the investigative endeavor of Nagarjuna. The term emptiness is extremely complex and admits of a plurality of contending and contradictory formulations. Nagarjuna was not advocating some form of nihilism as some have mistakenly claimed; he is only challenging the fixed and mutable essences that some Buddhist metaphysicians had proposed. In order to demonstrate the way of Nagarjuna's thinking, I wish to focus on a chapter in the text that addresses the issue of time and existence. He makes the point that from a temporal and existential perspective the concept of time can be extremely slippery and problematic. These are his actual queries and statements.

"If the past and the future are indeed contingently connected to the past they should all inhabit the past"

"The present and the future do not construct the past. How could the present and future be contingently connected?"

"It is not possible for the present and the future to associate themselves without being dependent on the past. Hence one cannot justify the existence of a present and future."

"According to the same method, the remainder of the time frame can be scarcely ordered and concepts like above, below, middle, identity and so on can be understood."

"Anything that is not non-static cannot be understood. Nothing one can grasp

as static time exists. If time cannot be grasped, how can it be understood?"

"If time exists on account of its status of being, where can it inhabit without that structure? As there is no structure of being, where can time exist?"

Nagarjuna's formulations of time are interesting and invite closer study. They bear certain resemblances to the comments on time made by deconstructionists such as Derrida.

Although Nagarjuna lived nearly twenty centuries ago, his formulations and approaches have a deep relevance for those interested in communication studies. In this regard, his insights and formulations bear a certain resemblance to those of Derrida.

Derrida was instrumental in ushering a far-reaching revolution in philosophy literature, and related fields by challenging the inherited wisdoms on questions of truth, textuality, language, meaning and so on. When we compare the statements of Nagarjuna and Derrida on such matters, we see certain points if affinity.

Derrida, like Nagarjuna, was a relentless critic of inherited wisdoms. Both were deeply engaged with the problem of language and textual production. Derrida sought to dismantle the conceptual oppositions and hierarchical systems of thought that supported signification. Indeed this was a primary objective of Nagarjuna as well. Derrida sought to focus on self-contradictions and blind spots that were at the heart of verbal communication and Nagarjuna did the same. Derrida challenged the notion that meaning could be comprehended through self-identical concepts, a preoccupation that marked the work of Nagarjuna as well.

In an interview, Jacques Derrida once remarked that 'I have attempted more and more systematically to find a non-site, or a non-philosophical site, from which to question philosophy. But the search for a no-philosophical site does not bespeak an anti-philosophical attitude. My central question is how can philosophy as such appear to the other through so that it can interrogate and reflect upon itself in an original manner.' Although Nagarjuna did not articulate his ideas in these terms, the effect has been the same.

Clearly, there are recognizable similarities between Nagarjuna's and Derrida's approaches to language, meaning, textuality pardoxicality and so on. For example, Robert Magliola says that, 'we should see that Nagarjuna takes on his specific task the dismantling of the principle of identity and that he accomplishes this he employs the same logical strategy and employs the very same arguments as Derrida. He goes on to say that Nagarjuna's devoidness (sunyata), is akin to Derrida's master concept of difference. The similarities between the concepts of devoidness and difference, the two master concepts of the two eminent thinkers, deserve careful scrutiny.

What I have sought to do here, is to indicate certain affinities of interest between Nagarjuna's and Derrida's thinking. I am by no means claiming that they belong to the same intellectual and investigative tradition. There are very many differences between the two to make such a claim plausible. What is obvious is that in terms of mind-set and orientation, there are certain identifiable similarities and we, as students of communication need to explore these further. Jacques Derrida's deconstruction is very much a product of European intellectual traditions, Derrida's engagement with such thinkers as Plato, Nietzsche, Hagel,Heidegger, and Levinas served to give deconstruction its characteristic flavor.

My effort to relate deconstruction to certain modes of thinking associated with classical India is only an effort to widen the contexts of possible understanding of deconstruction. Similarly, one can suggest comparisons with classical Chinese and Japanese intellectual and cultural traditions, for example Zen Buddhism.

(To be continued)




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