Language, Understanding and Reality: A Study of Their Relation in a Foundational Indian Metaphysical Debate

Eviatar Shulman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper engages with Johaness Bronkhorst's recognition of a "correspondence principle" as an underlying assumption of Nāgārjuna's thought. Bronkhorst believes that this assumption was shared by most Indian thinkers of Nāgārjuna's day, and that it stimulated a broad and fascinating attempt to cope with Nāgārjuna's arguments so that the principle of correspondence may be maintained in light of his forceful critique of reality. For Bronkhorst, the principle refers to the relation between the words of a sentence and the realities they are meant to convey. While I accept this basic intuition of correspondence, this paper argues that a finer understanding of the principle can be offered. In light of a set of verses from Nāgārjuna's Śūnyatāsaptati (45-57), it is maintained that for Nāgārjuna, the deeper level of correspondence involves a structural identity he envisions between understanding and reality. Here Nāgārjuna claims that in order for things to exist, a conceptual definition of their nature must be available; in order for there to be a real world and reliable knowledge, a svabhāva of things must be perceived and accounted for. Svabhāva is thus reflected as a knowable essence. Thus, Nāgārjuna's arguments attacks the accountability of both concepts and things, a position which leaves us with nothing more than mistaken forms of understanding as the reality of the empty. This markedly metaphysical approach is next analyzed in light of the debate Nāgārjuna conducts with a Nyāya interlocutor in his Vigrahavyāvartanī. The correspondence principle is here used to highlight the metaphysical aspect of the debate and to point out the ontological vision of Nāgārjuna's theory of emptiness. In the analysis of the Vigrahavyāvartanī it becomes clear that the discussion revolves around a foundational metaphysical deliberation regarding the reality or unreality of svabhāva. In this dispute, Nāgārjuna fails to answer the most crucial point raised by his opponent-what is that he defines as empty?

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)339-369
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of Indian Philosophy
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2012


  • Emptiness
  • Indian Metaphysics
  • Madhyamaka
  • Nyāya
  • Nāgārjuna
  • Svabhāva
  • Vigrahavyāvartanī
  • Śūnyatāsaptati


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