TA 113 (Shen)

Commentary 5

by Herbert FJ Müller
12 May 2009, posted 16 May 2009

Some oriental epistemologies with an unstructured center have been in long use, and are of particular interest for this reason.   They demonstrate the long-term validity of this approach, which has not been pursued this way in the occidental epistemologies, and I find it to be of much help to see how other cultures have dealt with a set of questions which have been of such great difficulty in Western epistemology.   Here I can only give my rather preliminary impressions; it appears that the study of the relations between Eastern and Western epistemologies is only in its beginning.


A. Priya (2008) describes the view of the early Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna (arond 200 CE), of his commentators Candrakirti  (600-650) and the Tibetan Lama Tsongkhapa (around 1400 CE) in terms which one might call  ‘radical de-constructivist’.   All views about conventional truth are deconstructed in the middle path of emptiness, nirvana (‘middle path’ because it avoids ‘errors of extremism’ like realism or idealism).   This deconstruction happens to all conventions, objects, and ideas;  even to feelings and volitions, form, smell, taste, and ‘workings of the mind’,  and including the division between subject and object.

Buddhist thinking has a nirvana start and aim.   As I understand the presentation of Buddhist epistemology by S.R. Bhatt (2008 [49ff]), the position of Dignaga (5th century CE) and Dharmakirti (7th century) was that   unique particular reality  cannot itself be the object of thought and language; concepts and words are expressions of mental categories, general characteristics rather than individual realities, and these are imposed upon the ineffable reality.  Although Bhatt does not use the term ‘unstructured’,  the result seems to be compatible with a view that ‘reality’ is not structured.

The notes by W. Adams (2008) on Bhatt’s paper are confined to object-perception according to early Buddhist criteria (3rd century BCE), compared to Adams’ own.   The early stages of this analysis appear to imply an unstructured state.   But since object-perception is a specialization within knowledge-creation involving gestalt-formations, it would be of interest to also know his conceptualization of non-object knowledge, such as pain, blue, just, two, or the all. 

In his commentary, F. Holmgren (2008) points out that Buddhist epistemologists have held the opinion that one cannot get rid of metaphysical opinions;  that attempts to do that will turn out to be futile, and that any epistemological system implicitly takes a metaphysical stance, which is used as-if it were true.   The view described by Holmgren is compatible with the 0-D proposal;  except that as mentioned, the traditional MIR-ontology-metaphysics understanding can be converted to that of a human tool.  


A description by V. Shen (1996 [31-32]) of the Chinese Taoistic view follows (in comparison with F. Wallner’s ‘reality construction’; the term ‘strangification’ is Wallner’s own English translation of ‘Verfremdung’):  

From the Taoist point of view, in order to know an other world by conducting strangification, it is not enough to appropriate an other language and to translate our language into an other language.   It is also necessary to communicate with the Reality Itself and to enlarge our knowledge of it.    In Lao Tzu’s words, “Having grasped the Mother (Tao, Reality Itself), you can thereby know the sons (beings, microworld); Having known the sons, you should return again to the Mother.” ...     Here Taoism posits an ontological detour to the Wirklichkeit as condition sine qua non for the act of strangification into other worlds (microworld and cultural world).   Since the Reality Itself is understandable, the ontological detour is thereby made possible.

In terms of Lao Tzu, we understand the Wirklichkeit  by the process of a “retracing regard” (Kuan) ... , an act of intuition of essence in returning to Tao.   The process of formation of our experience is therefore seen by Taoism as a process of back and forth between the act of interacting with beings (sons) and the act of returning to Tao (the Mother).    The act of returning to Reality Itself and communicating with it is therefore considered by Taoism as nourishing our strangification with other microworlds.   This act of ontological detour to Reality Itself bestows an ontological dimension to strangification.   When an act of strangification is conducted with an ontological detour, it becomes thereby an ontological strangification.’ 

This last point is central to Shen’s argumentation.   It is also of particular interest for, and compatible with, 0-D,  where we talk about the unstructured background as start- and reference-point (what Shen calls ‘Tao’ or ‘mother’), which he says can be used to undo presently used structures (‘microworlds’) and to start afresh.   

A few remarks about the concepts used by Shen and Wallner.   Because Tao is unstructured, one would in 0-D not call it ‘Wirklichkeit’, ‘reality’, or ‘ontology’, all of which are usually understood to imply mind-independently pre-structured reality.   ‘The method of strangification (Verfremdung)  would become  ‘return to the unstructured in order to re-structure’.    And  ‘reality is understandable’  would change to  ‘the unstructured can be structured’.   ‘Constructing Realität’  translates to  ‘creating working structures’.



Adams W.A. (2008), Abhidhammic  Perception.  Karl Jaspers Forum C7 to TA 109, 16 / 22 Nov 2008.  <http://www.kjf.ca/109-C7ADA.htm>


Bhatt S.R. (2008), Theory Of Knowledge In Dignaga And Dharmakirti.  (Received by email from the author.)

Holmgren F. (2008) ( Buddhist  Epistemology )  Commentary 1 to TA 109 (Bhatt). Karl Jaspers Forum, 3 July / 2 August 2008.  <http://www.kjf.ca/109-C1HOL.htm>

Priya A. (2008), Questions  About  Nagarjuna.   Karl Jaspers Forum, C3 to TA 109 31 July / 9 August 2008 <http://www.kjf.ca/109-C3PRI.htm>

Shen V (1996),  Confucianism  And  Taoism  In  Response  To  Constructive  Realism.    Journal of Chinese Philosophy 23 (1996) 59-78;  posted for discussion in Karl Jaspers Forum as TA113, 
14 March 2009   <http://www.kjf.ca/113-TASHE.htm>

Wallner F, (1992) Konstruktion der Realität.  Von Wittgenstein zum Konstruktiven Realismus.  WUV Universitätsverlag :  Wien.


Herbert FJ Müller
     e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>