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Laura Guerrero on “A Defense of Buddhist Realism”

Laura Guerrero
Friday, April 05, 2024
3:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Philosophy Colloquium

Abstract: According to the Madhyamaka tradition of Buddhism, if being real means that a thing exists with the nature it has independently of how, or if, it is cognized by minded creatures like us, then nothing is real. One important Abhidharma tradition of Buddhism, however, maintains that there are real entities-fundamental trope-like entities called dharmas-that serve as the ontological foundation of ordinary concrete objects and mental states. To motivate the Madhyamaka global anti-realist position, the 2nd century philosopher Nāgārjuna argues that Abhidharma realism is inconsistent. He argues that the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination-the view that all phenomena in time occur on the basis of conditions-is inconsistent with the Abhidharma view that some entities are fundamental and hence ultimately real. If all entities are dependently originated, Nāgārjuna argues, then they cannot be ultimately real. However, the Abhidharma view that is presented as the target of Madhyamaka criticism in these arguments does not reflect the actual views of Vaibhāṣika tradition of Abhidharma. In particular, Nāgārjuna characterizes fundamental entities as completely ontologically independent of other entities whereas the Vaibhāṣika does not. In this essay I will clarify the Vaibhāṣika understanding of dependent origination and their notion of fundamentality and demonstrate that Nāgārjuna's arguments do not establish the claim that nothing is ultimately real. The Vaibhāṣika position is of philosophical interest because it serves as an historical example of a view that maintains that it is possible for fundamental entities to be ontological dependent.