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SOPHIA (2013) 52:409424

DOI 10.1007/s11841-012-0336-y

Buddhist Fictionalism
Mario DAmato

Published online: 6 December 2012

# Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Abstract Questions regarding what exists are central to various forms of

Buddhist philosophy, as they are to many traditions of philosophy. Interestingly,
there is perhaps a clearer consensus in Buddhist thought regarding what does not
exist than there may be regarding precisely what does exist, at least insofar as
the doctrine of antman (no self, absence of self) is taken to be a fundamental
Buddhist doctrine. It may be noted that many forms of Mahyna Buddhist
philosophy in particular are considered to offer a quite austere ontologya rather
empty account of what exists. Continuing in this vein of ontological austerity,
here I will attempt to lay out a relatively novel approach to Buddhist ontology,
viz. Buddhist fictionalism.
Keywords Buddhist philosophy . Analytic philosophy . Fictionalism
Questions regarding what exists are central to various forms of Buddhist philosophy, as they are to many traditions of philosophy. Interestingly, there is perhaps a
clearer consensus in Buddhist thought regarding what does not exist than there may
be regarding precisely what does exist, at least insofar as the doctrine of antman (no
self, absence of self) is taken to be a fundamental Buddhist doctrine. It may be noted

I would like to thank those who offered helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper when I presented
it at the Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy at Columbia University (special thanks to my
respondent, Jay Garfield, and to Jonathan Gold), at the National Chengchi University in Taipei (especially
Ching Keng and Hans-Rudolf Kantor), and at Emory University (especially Sara McClintock and John
M. DAmato (*)
Rollins College, Winter Park, FL, USA
e-mail: mdamato@rollins.edu


M. DAmato

that many forms of Mahyna Buddhist philosophy in particular are considered to

offer a quite austere ontologya rather empty account of what exists.1 Continuing
in this vein of ontological austerity, here, I will attempt to lay out a relatively novel
approach to Buddhist ontology, viz., Buddhist fictionalism. Since this endeavor is
more constructive than exegetical, I will not primarily focus on defending any
claim that some historical Buddhist philosophers were actually fictionalists (or
proto-fictionalists). Rather I will focus on sketching out what a Buddhist form of
fictionalism might look like. I will begin by offering an overview of fictionalism,
relating it especially to the context in which it emerged in analytic philosophy.
Then I will briefly discuss two recent papers on Buddhism and fictionalism in
order to set up my own approach to the topic. Next, I will outline what I consider
to be the preferred form of Buddhist fictionalism, drawing from Yablos reworking
of Carnaps conception of frameworks, and show how this might be applied to the
Yogcra three-nature (trisvabhva) theoryor more precisely, to what may be
referred to as the progressive model of the three-nature theory. Finally, I will
elucidate three reasons for adopting a form of fictionalism for Buddhism, viz., antirealism, Wittgensteinianism, and self-reflexivity; I offer these three reasons as suggested principles that might usefully inform the task of extending, or extrapolating,
the project of Buddhist philosophyspecifically, a Yogcra-inflected form of
Mahyna philosophyin the contemporary context.

Fictionalism Introduced
Fictionalist positions in philosophy may be understood in some sense as a response to
Quines approach to ontology. The Quinean ontological method is to accept whatever
entities are posited by our strongest theory. As Schaffer explains, The elements of the
domain [of discourse] are the posits of [our] best theory, and insofar as we accept the
theory, these are the entities we get committed to (2009, 348). So if our best account
of what exists is the account offered by physics, then we must accept that the
elementary particles posited by our most rigorous theories in physics actually exist.
Furthermore, if physics depends upon mathematics, then we must also accept the
existence of mathematical objects.2 This latter view is sometimes referred to as the
Quine indispensability argument, or the Quine-Putnam indispensability argument.
Hartry Field states the argument in the following terms: (1) We need to speak in
terms of mathematical entities in doing science, metalogic, etc.; (2) if we need to
speak in terms of a kind of entity for such important purposes, we have excellent
reason for supposing that that kind of entity exists (quoted in Price 2009, 336).
Putnam himself puts the argument as follows: quantification over mathematical
entities is indispensable for science, both formal and physical; therefore we should
accept such quantification; but this commits us to accepting the existence of the
mathematical entities in question (quoted in Price 2009, 337). Thus, according to one

See, e.g., Tillemans (1999) for a discussion of Buddhist logic in relation to Madhyamaka thought, in
which he considers whether it might be possible to formulate a logic without ontological commitments.
Schaffer points out that, in adhering to this ontological method, FIndeed, Quine himself felt compelled to
move from eliminativism about numbers to realism_ (2009, 349).

Buddhist Fictionalism


standard deployment of the Quinean ontological method, we must be committed to

the existence of at least some abstract objects, namely the objects of mathematics
(whether numbers, functions, sets, etc.), and so the Quinean ontological method leads
to a form of Platonism.
Fictionalism, in brief, is the view that the entities posited by some discourse need
not be considered to exist as such, but may be considered useful fictions. Sainsbury
states that the starting point for fictionalism is some kind of ontological scruple: one
cannot bring oneself to believe in [e.g.,]unobservable things, or abstract things. But
one has somehow to do justice to the fact that one cannot simply throw away the
related regions of discourse: [e.g.,]elementary physics, or mathematics (2010, 2).
Sainsbury goes on to define fictionalism as follows: To be a fictionalist about some
region of thought is to say that the things thought are of value (are in some sense to be
accepted, esteemed, or commended), but this value does not consist in their being
true (2010, 2). Eklund offers a similar account of fictionalism, although he distinguishes two separate fictionalist theses: an ontological thesis and a linguistic thesis.
He states that the fictionalist ontological thesis is the thesis that the entities characteristic of the discourse do not exist, or have the ontological status of fictional
entities, while the fictionalist linguistic thesis is the thesis that utterances of sentences of the discourse are best seen not as efforts to say what is literally true, but as
useful fictions of some sort (2011).3 So fictionalism represents an attempt to
continue engaging in certain forms of discourse without thereby committing ourselves to the existence of the entities referred to in the discourse, or without thereby
believing that the sentences we affirm in that discourse are literally true. For our
purposes, the idea is that such an account would allow Buddhist thinkers to take
seriously the claims of conventional truth, without thereby being committed to
conventionally posited entities.
Introductions to fictionalism (e.g., Kalderon 2005, 1; Sainsbury 2010, 152)
sometimes point to 1980 as an inaugural year for contemporary forms of fictionalism,
since this was the year of publication of two relevant seminal works: Hartry Fields
Science Without Numbers and Bas van Fraassens The Scientific Image. In Science
Without Numbers, Field argues that to explain even very complex applications of
mathematics to the physical world (for instance, the use of differential equations in
the axiomatization of physics), it is not necessary to assume that the mathematics that
is applied is true, [rather] it is necessary to assume little more than that mathematics is
consistent (1980, vii). Field states that the axioms of mathematics need not be
viewed as truths, but may be seen as useful fictions; hence the Platonism implied
by the standard approach to the Quinean ontological method can be replaced by a
more palatable nominalism (i.e., mathematical objectsnumbers, functions, sets,
etc.need not be affirmed as actually existent, but may be viewed as fictional
entities). Fields work sketches out a strategy for showing how science can be
reformulated without referring to mathematical objects, offering for example a
nominalistic approach to Newtonian physics. Field believes that such a reformulation
is possible because, contra Quine, Field argues that mathematics is dispensable, since
the conclusions we arrive at by these means are not genuinely new, they are already
Eklund points out that One can embrace the linguistic thesis without embracing the ontological thesis,
and vice versa, but that Quite often the theses are run together (2011).


M. DAmato

derivable in a more long-winded fashion from the premises, without recourse to the
mathematical entities (1980, 1011), so the usefulness of mathematics does not
necessarily entail its indispensability.
While Field argues against the necessity of accepting the truth of mathematics, van Fraassen argues against scientific realism, which he identifies as the
view that Science aims to give us, in its theories, a literally true story of what
the world is like; and acceptance of a scientific theory involves the belief that it
is true (1980, 8). In The Scientific Image, van Fraassen argues that the belief
involved in accepting a scientific theory is only that it Fsaves the phenomena,_ that is,
correctly describes what is observable[and] to accept one theory rather than
another one involves also a commitment to a research programme, to continuing the dialogue with nature in the framework of one conceptual scheme rather
than another (1980, 4). In short, accepting a scientific theory need not entail that
one must believe it to be true, but merely requires that one views the theory as
empirically adequate. Since, on van Fraassens account, it is not necessary for
one to believe that scientific theories are literally true, it is also not necessary
for one to believe that the theoretical entities posited by science (e.g., elementary particles) actually exist; such entities may be viewed as useful fictions.
Although not all fictionalists would necessarily agree with the projects or
positions presented by Field and van Fraassen, gaining a general sense of the
sorts of views they developed provides a useful entry into what fictionalism is
all about. There are fictionalist positions regarding different areas of discourse
mathematics, scientific theories, ethics (moral fictionalism), possible worlds (modal
fictionalism), etc.and such positions have been developed in various ways. But
again, we may understand the common features of the variety of fictionalist positions
in the terms laid out by Sainsbury and Eklund above: not literal truth, but useful
fictions; not existent entities, but fictional ones. Also, the choice of the term fictionalism should by now be clear, insofar as we are accustomed to affirming all sorts of
statements about Gandalf or Sherlock Holmes without actually believing that these
personages actually exist, or that statements positing their existence are literally true.
It should not be thought, however, that fictionalists necessarily view mathematics as
on a par with literature: literature and mathematics are significantly different forms of
discourse, and the criteria for affirming statements in them differ in correspondingly
significant ways.
There are a few relatively standard objections to fictionalism. While the
objection of the indispensability of mathematics was addressed by Field, following
Yablo we may briefly consider two further objections to fictionalism, viz.,
applicability and objectivity.4 Yablo points out that the indispensability of mathematics should be distinguished from its applicability. He states, Applicability is, in the
first instance, a problem: the problem of explaining the effectiveness of mathematicsor what the physicist Eugene Wigner has referred to as The Unreasonable
Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Scienceswhich is to say, how it can be
the case that mathematics is so useful in explaining the workings of the natural world
There are other responses to the objections of applicability and objectivity (e.g., Balaguer 1998 and 2009),
but since I will be developing a fictionalist position based partly on Yablos views, I will primarily focus on
Yablos responses.

Buddhist Fictionalism


(Yablo 2005, 92). Rather than taking the applicability of mathematics as an argument
for the truth of mathematics, Yablo suggests that we explain the applicability of
mathematics in terms of a content-oriented make-believe, wherein our interest in
working out what is true-according-to-the-theory is by and large independent of
whether the theory is thought to be really truei.e., independent of whether the
objects of mathematics really exist (2005, 9899). So Yablo argues that the use of
mathematics as a representational aid does not entail that one must accept the entities
posited by mathematical discourse. In a similar vein, the physicist Lee Smolin
responds to the apparent unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics by suggesting
that mathematics be viewed as a particularly effective game (like chess), which may
have been inspired by our most fundamental observations of nature, but which is a
generalization of observed regularities when time and particularity are removed
(2009). Hence, the effectiveness of mathematics in modeling the processes of nature
need not be taken as demonstrative proof that mathematics is true.
The second objection is regarding the objectivity of mathematics, or whether a
fictionalist interpretation of mathematics can account for the apparent objectivity of
mathematical theories; as Yablo puts the question here, Why do some ways of
constructing mathematical theories, and extending existing ones, strike us as better
than others? (2005, 100). His response is that some ways of developing a theory
seem to make for an apter gamea game that lends itself to the expression of more
metaphorical truths (2005, 102). Developing this insight a bit further, Yablo states
that we may note two different kinds of correctness in mathematical theories: in
some cases a way of developing a theory seems correct because it meshes well with
the background story (the theories that are already accepted), and in other cases a
theory seems correct because of its cognitive promisebecause it seems that it
might be particularly useful in the specific form of content-oriented make-believe in
which it is deployed (2005, 103). While much more can be said regarding the
objections to fictionalism, and the defense of fictionalist views, this should suffice
to give some sense of how fictionalist positions might be worked out.
It should be noted that fictionalism should not only be viewed as a defensible means to carry out the negative project of minimizing ones ontological
commitments; it may also be seen as an attempt to work out a philosophical account
that is committed to taking seriously the continuing evolution and development of
different forms of discourse. For example, for someone who holds a scientific-realist
position (in the terms laid out by van Fraassen above), it would be odd to affirm that
the theories put forward by the current state of science are literally true, while
also affirming that those theories will almost certainly be revised and improved
upon in the (not too distant) future: If a theory is true, then why should it be
subject to revision? Is it only partially true? Or only true by our current lights (but
not actually true)? These seem to be strange ways of using the word true. In fact, as
Niiniluoto points out, Excluding naive realists, most scientists are fallibilists in
Peirces sense: scientific theories are hypothetical and always corrigible in
principle. They may happen to be true, but we cannot know this for certain
in any particular case (2011).5 Fictionalism allows one to take seriously the
Further analysis of the debate between scientific realists (e.g., Popper) and anti-realists/instrumentalists
(e.g., van Fraassen) may be found in Niiniluotos discussion of Scientific Progress (2011).


M. DAmato

continuing change and development of different areas of discourse, without on the

one hand dogmatically upholding that the entities posited by the current state of
science ultimately exist (or that the statements made by our current science are
literally true)6 or on the other hand falling into a form of skepticism or nihilism. It
is this middle way potential of fictionalism that, I believe, recommends it to those
interested in developing Buddhist philosophical positions. In the next section, I
will provide a brief overview of two recent papers that discuss Buddhist

Buddhist Fictionalisms
Probably the earliest reference to Buddhism as fictionalism occurs in the work of
B.K. Matilal, who, in a discussion of Indian logic, refers to the Buddhists as taking a
pan-fictional approach to the world of phenomena (1970, 93). Since then, other
scholars have referred to various forms of Buddhist philosophy as fictionalist,
including Sautrntika (Garfield 2006), Madhyamaka (Crittenden 1981; Garfield
2006; Tillemans 2011), Yogcra (DAmato 2009a), and the Dignga-Dharmakrti
school (Yao 2009). There are certainly differences (whether subtle or significant) in
the ways in which the term fictionalism is applied in each of these cases, so to arrive
at a more nuanced understanding of the senses in which Buddhism has been considered to be a form of fictionalism, I will examine two recent papers in particular, one
by Garfield and another by Tillemans.
In a paper titled Reductionism and Fictionalism, Garfield offers comments
on Mark Sideritss book, Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy. Discussing
the doctrine of antman, Garfield states that Reductionism, as Siderits points out, is
not a way of demonstrating that there is no self but, rather, that the self really is
something elsein this case, a continuum of subpersonal psychophysical phenomena (2006, 4). While Siderits had characterized a certain strand of Buddhist thought
as reductionist, Garfield develops an alternative reading according to which preMadhyamaka schools of Buddhist philosophy (e.g., Sautrntika and Pudgalavda)
mightlike Madhyamaka philosophy itselfbe characterized as fictionalist.
Garfield states that on this reading, the continuity between pre-Madhyamaka schools
and the Madhyamaka school might be better brought into focus. He points out that
according to Siderits, Madhyamaka is radically discontinuous with earlier Buddhist
schools in that while the early schools are reductionist, Madhyamaka is anti-realist;
however, according to Garfield, Sautrntika and Pudgalavda philosophy could also
be interpreted as fictionalist, insofar as they were fictionalists about persons and
other conventional phenomena (2006, 5-6). The difference between the preMadhyamaka and Madhyamaka schools, according to Garfield, is found in how far
they are willing to go with fictionalism: while the pre-Madhyamaka schools posit that
the fundamental entitiesthe momentary events (dharmas)that comprise
Which is a scientific-realist position; as Chakravartty states, most define scientific realism in terms of the
truth or approximate truth of scientific theories or certain aspects of theories. Some define it in terms of the
successful reference of theoretical terms to things in the world, both observable and unobservable (2011).

Buddhist Fictionalism


conventional objects are not fictional, Madhyamaka philosophy is fictionalism all

the way down, because of the doctrine of emptiness (2006, 6).7
Garfields comments may lead us to further consider the difference between reductionism and fictionalism: viz., while a reductionist would hold that talk of conventional
objects should be reinterpreted in philosophical terms as talk of interrelated processes
of actually existent momentary events, a fictionalist would not accept that such talk of
conventional objects can be reduced to talk of ultimate objects. Kalderon makes a
similar distinction between reductionism and fictionalism, stating that according to
van Fraassens fictionalism, scientific claims are not reduced to claims about other
(directly observable) phenomena, but rather science is interpreted at face value as
involving reference to and quantification over a domain of unobservable entities;
hence, the fictionalist claims, and the reductionist denies, that the target region of
discourse is interpreted at face value (2005, 4). While the reductionist attempts to
ground claims of the target discourse in some more fundamental discourse, the
fictionalist does not make this move and may accept the target discourse for pragmatic purposes without believing that the entities referred to are actually existent.
The distinction between reductionism and fictionalism can be further clarified by
relating it to another distinctionone that is rather ubiquitous in Buddhist philosophy: viz., the distinction between conventional truth and ultimate truth. Even in the
most general terms, the moves towards reductionism or fictionalism would entail a
significant difference in the way in which the distinction between conventional truth
and ultimate truth would be developed, which may be seen in the following diagram:












As Garfield points out, the key difference between reductionism and fictionalism is
regarding how far down to take the levels of analysis: for the reductionist, the
conventional ontology is in some way grounded in a final ontology, while the
Madhyamaka fictionalist sees the conventional ontology as free-floating.

It may be pointed out here that in replying to Garfields critique, Siderits emphasizes that in his Personal Identity
and Buddhist Philosophy, he sees the primary distinction between pre-Madhyamaka (viz., Abhidharma)
and Madhyamaka as a distinction between local and global anti-realism, specifying that he uses anti-realism
in Dummetts sense, as the name of a view about meaning and truth, and not as the name of a metaphysical
view. For Dummett an anti-realist is one who denies that there are verification-transcendent truth-conditions for
statements in a given class. Now, as Dummett points out, a reductionist is a kind of local anti-realist, but this is
typically against the background of global realism. Abhidharma seems to fit this pattern[while] Madhyamaka
might be usefully considered a kind of global anti-realism (Siderits 2006, 18).


M. DAmato

In another recent paper, Tillemans (2011) discusses Madhyamaka philosophy in

relation to fictionalism. His concern in this paper is with the status of conventional
truth, and whether the Mdhyamika must accept everything that is agreed upon in the
world to exist (2011, 151). Tillemans characterizes this formulation of conventional
truth as a dismal position, since it would entail a trivialization of the idea of truth
(2011, 152). However, he also presents Sideritss somewhat more forgiving formulation of conventional truth; according to this account, it is not the case that simply
everything whatsoever that people say/believe is so is indeed so, but rather that
customarily accepted practices and community standardshave to be taken as
given (2011, 155). Attempting to understand why certain Mdhyamikas (namely,
Prsangikas like Candrakrti) were led to this position, Tillemans offers the suggestion
that this move may be understood as motivated by what we would refer to as fictionalism.
Tillemans defines fictionalism as an approach that enables people to reject commitment to some or even all kinds of entities by adopting a type of pretense or make-believe.
They might see talk of such entities as metaphorical or might even add to truth claims like
Fp is true_ a disclaimer operator that p is true Fin such and such a story_i.e.,
according to some specific fiction (2011, 158). Tillemans continues by pointing out
that Prsangikas can be seen as revolutionary fictionalists who hold that adopting a
pretense stance constitutes a type of progress. Instead of saying that the world itself already
tacitly plays make-believe (what is known as Fhermeneutical fictionalism_), they say that
the world is completely mistaken about what it does and that it ought to learn to say the
things it says only in terms of pretend-assertions (2011, 158). So on this account, the
Prsan: gika philosopher would work out the Madhyamaka rejection of intrinsic nature
(svabhva) by adopting a fictionalist approach to all conventional domains of dis:
course; and this implies a revolutionary fictionalism insofar as the Prsangika understands any worldly beings engagement with conventional discourse to entail a false belief
in things having an intrinsic nature. While Tillemans concludes that such a pan-fictionalism
is an undesirable way to develop Madhyamaka philosophystating that it is an extremely
high price to pay for rejecting what Mdhyamikas say they reject (2011, 163)in the
next section I will attempt to flesh out the details of a Buddhist fictionalism.

The Method of Frameworks

In what follows I will outline what I consider to be the preferred form of fictionalism
for Buddhism. The form offered here picks up from Yablos reworking of Carnaps
conception of frameworks. Before laying out this account, it should be noted that
according to the received view, the rebirth of ontology in analytic philosophy can be
dated to the mid-twentieth century in a group of papers by Quine and Carnappapers
involving arguments regarding whether the project of ontology was even possible,
and if it were possible, what form it should take. According to the received view,
while Quine of course takes existence questions dead seriously and believes that
ontology can be carried out according to a precise method (i.e., accepting whatever
entities are posited by our best theory), Carnap adopts a more quizzical attitude
towards ontology, considering it to be meaningless to ask whether, for example,
numbers (really, actually) exist: Determined to pronounce from a position external to
the number-framework, all the philosopher achieves is to cut himself off from the

Buddhist Fictionalism


rules governing the use of Fnumber,_ which then drains his pronouncements of all
significance (Yablo 1998, 230, 232). Quine isagain, according to the received
viewconsidered to have won this debate.
Needless to say, I am not in agreement with the received view. Following Price, Yablo,
and Schaffer, I believe that Carnap and Quine should not be viewed as directly opposed to
one another: though the textbooks cast Quine and Carnap as opponents, Quine is better
understood as an anti-metaphysical ally of his mentor (Schaffer 2009, 349); furthermore,
I believe that Quines arguments did not kill Carnaps anti-metaphysical account,
but rather succeeded in lopping off some inessential appendages (Price 2009, 322;
cf. Yablo 1998, 232). Contra the received view of the Quinean ontological method,
Yablo argues that To determine our [ontological] commitments, we need to be able to
ferret out all traces of non-literality in our assertions. If there is no feasible project of
doing that, then there is no feasible project of Quinean ontology (1998, 233). So on
Yablos account, the standard approach to the Quinean ontological project cannot be
carried out, because at the end of the day it has not proven possible to strictly
delineate literal assertions from metaphorical onesa view that is reminiscent of a
position offered by the Yogcra Buddhist thinker, Sthiramati, that all language use
is metaphorical (Tzohar 2011, 234); everything is metaphorical since there is no
primary referent for a word (Kunjunni Raja 1963, 247).
Carnaps conception of frameworks is relatively straightforward. He presents the main
outlines of his approach in a few sentences, beginning with the basic definition of a linguistic
framework: If someone wishes to speak in his language about a new kind of entities, he has
to introduce a system of new ways of speaking, subject to new rules; we shall call this
procedure the construction of a framework for the new entities in question (1950, 21).
From there he explains the distinction between internal and external questions: we
must distinguish two kinds of questions of existence: first, questions of the existence
of certain entities of the new kind within the framework; we call them internal
questions; and second, questions concerning the existence or reality of the framework
itself [of the system of entities as a whole], called external questions (1950, 21-22).
So, for example, returning to the question regarding the existence of numbers, Carnap
would reply that if one were asking about the existence of certain entitiese.g., whether
there are any even prime numbersfrom within the number framework, then the answer
is clearly yes; but if one were asking about the system of entities itselfviz., whether
numbers existfrom outside the number-framework, then the question would be
meaningless. Hence, ontology is largely a misguided enterprise that attempts to ask
external questions regarding the existence of a system of entities; rather, questions
regarding the existence of certain entities can only be addressed internally.
The only interesting questions that can be asked external to a framework, on Carnaps
account, are pragmatic ones regarding whether a particular framework should be adopted.
Such pragmatic determinations, however, should not be confused with acceptance of the
existence of the entities posited by the framework: We may still speak (and have done so)
of Fthe acceptance of the framework_ or Fthe acceptance of the new entities_ since this
form of speech is customary; but one must keep in mind that these phrases do not mean
for us anything more than acceptance of the new linguistic forms (1950, 31). Carnap
emphasizes that the decision to accept a new framework is a practical matter, and not
a theoretical one, and that such acceptance can only be judged as being more or less
expedient, fruitful, conducive to the aim for which the language is intended (1950,


M. DAmato

31). So on this account, accepting the number framework does not entail believing
that numbers really exist, or accepting the framework of particle physics does not
entail believing that quarks really exist.8 But do quarks (for example) exist? Again,
asked internal to physics, the answer is affirmative. But the only meaningful external
question is: Should the physics-framework be adopted?
Carnap himself did not explicitly interpret his conception of frameworks in fictionalist terms.9 This task is taken up by Yablo in a paper in which he attempts to defend
Carnap from Quines objections to the conception of frameworks, specifically regarding the
validity of the internal/external distinction. In brief, Yablo argues that Quine is right that
Carnaps internal/external distinction depends on the analytic/synthetic distinction (the
latter distinction being one that Quine famously argued against),10 but Yablo goes on to
state that Carnaps internal/external distinction can be freed of this dependence, and that
once freed it becomes something independently interesting: the distinction between statements made within make-believe games and those made without themor, rather, a special
case of it with some claim to be called the metaphorical/literal distinction (1998, 232).
While taking into consideration Quines critiques, Yablo argues that employing a framework can be understood in terms of an enterprise where sentences are put at the service of
something other than their usual truth-conditionsin a disciplined but defeasible way, an
activity that Yablo sees as paradigmatic of engaging in a form of pretense (1998, 243). So
Yablo reinterprets the use of a framework as engaging in a form of pretense or makebelieve; while employing a particular framework entails employing a set of (revisable)
rules in a disciplined fashion, it does not entail believing that the entities posited within the
framework must really exist.
Yablos fictionalist reformulation of Carnaps conception of frameworks (which I will
refer to as Carnap-Yablo fictionalist frameworks) can be usefully deployed in developing the Buddhist philosophical distinction between conventional truth and ultimate
truth. The key move would be to interpret the fictive operator according to fiction F
(according to the conventional domain of discourse F) as identifying the fictionalist
framework that specifies the parameters in terms of which some conventional truth
would be affirmed. The basic idea may be seen through the following diagram:




Regarding the word really here, Yablo offers the following apropos remark: The goal of philosophical
ontology is to determine what really exists. Leave out the Freally_ and theres no philosophy (1998, 258).
Yablo, of course, is willing to Fleave out the really._
Finnigan and Tanaka (2011) also discuss Carnaps conception of frameworks, but they do not develop his
conception in explicitly fictionalist terms. On the question of whether Carnap would endorse a fictionalist
interpretation of his conception of frameworks, by viewing the internal as a form of make-believe, see
Yablo 1998, 243244.
It would take us too far away from our topic to consider the details of Yablos arguments here, but one of
the main points Yablo concedes to Quine is that Carnaps frameworks are made up inter alia of analytic
assertion rules, which while not as objectionable as analytic truths, are still objectionable: no assertion or
rule of assertion can lay claim to being indefeasibly correct (1998, 237).

Buddhist Fictionalism


Regarding applying this method of fictionalist frameworks to different forms

of Buddhist philosophy, as indicated above, I believe this method would be
better suited to forms of Buddhist philosophy that do not interpret the conventional/ultimate distinction in reductionist terms. But there are still a number of
differences among such non-reductionist positions: for example, some might
affirm the doctrine of emptiness (nyat) as the ultimate truth (paramrthasatya), while others might hold that the ultimate truth is ineffable (nirabhilpyat),
and still others might put forward the view that the ultimate truth is that there is no
ultimate truth, or that the ultimate truth should be understood in terms of dialetheism.
The method of fictionalist frameworks might also be used to articulate the doctrine
that universals (smnya) are unreal. My focus, however, will be on showing how
one interpretation of the three-nature theory might be articulated in terms of CarnapYablo fictionalist frameworks.
The three-nature (trisvabhva) theory is central to the Yogcra school of
Mahyna Buddhist philosophy and is directed towards effecting a shift in
the overall perspective on reality, altering the terms in which reality is interpreted or envisioned; as such, it is a key aspect of the Yogcra path of
spiritual practicea theory that exemplifies the practice of philosophy as a
way of life, to use Hadots phrase (1995). While there are certainly differences
regarding how the three natures are elucidated in different Yogcra texts, here
I will stay within the bounds of what may be called the progressive model,
wherein each of the three naturesthe imagined (parikalpita), the dependent
(paratantra), and the perfected (parinis: panna)refers to a distinct, progressive level
of semiotic awareness, moving from the deluded to the fully awakened.11 The
imagined nature refers to reality as it appears to ordinary, deluded sentient
beings, the world of subject-object duality constructed through conceptualization and language, wherein a fundamental distinction between perceiving subjects and perceived objects is made. In terms of Carnap-Yablo fictionalist
frameworks, the imagined nature may be characterized as the framework of
everyday objects, what Carnap refers to as the world of things, encompassing
the simplest framework [kind of entities] dealt with in the everyday language:
the spatio-temporally ordered system of observable things and events (1950, 22). The
dependent nature, on the other hand, refers to the causally interdependent flow
of representations, which entails the realization through spiritual practice that
the conceptually constructed entities of the imagined nature do not actually
exist, but are simply the effects (i.e., the misinterpretation through imputation)
of the causally dependent flow of representations. In terms of Carnap-Yablo
fictionalist frameworks, the dependent nature may be characterized as a phenomenalistic framework, which describes a new kind of entitiesviz., representations (vijapti)defined in a new way, subject to new rules (Carnap 1950,
21)i.e., wherein even the ordinary objects [of normal states of consciousness] are
not different from the mind, are nothing but cognition (vijapti-mtra)

For exegetical analyses of the progressive model of the three natures, see Sponberg 1983, DAmato
2003, and DAmato 2005. It should be pointed out that the standard model of the three natures is the
pivotal modelemphasizing a shift from the imagined to the perfected, with the dependent as the fulcrum
which is more commonly presented in Yogcra scholarship. One Yogcra text that clearly offers a
progressive model is the Mahynastrlam
: kra (cf. DAmato 2005).


M. DAmato

(Schmithausen 1976, 241). Hence, in the terms of this new, phenomenalistic

framework, any move from a mental representation to positing the existence of
an external object is not warranted, or as Hall states, Stop at the bare percept;
no need to posit any entity behind it, since in the terms of the framework of
the dependent nature, the concept of vijapti suffices to make sense of perception, and the concept of an external referent (artha) is logically superfluous (1986,
14, 18). Finally, the perfected nature refers to the awakened vision of reality: the
ultimate (paramrtha), reality as-it-is (yath-bhta), thusness (tathat), the
inexpressible (anabhilapyat), the signless (animitta).12 The perfected nature is
the vision of reality unmediated by conceptualization and language. Through the
realization of the perfected nature, awakening is attained, an attainment that is
interpreted in the Yogcra tradition as a nonconceptual awareness (nirvikalpajna) of thusness (tathat). In relation to Carnap-Yablo fictionalist frameworks, the
perfected nature would be characterized as the leaving-off of all frameworks whatsoever.
So according to this progressive model of the three-nature theory, the aim is to move from
the deluded framework of the imagined, through to the more refined framework of the
dependent, wherein the only posits are interdependent flows of representations (representation-only, vijapti-mtra)a framework that serves to break attachment to external
objects, as well as to the view that there is an unchanging self; and ultimately to the
perfectedwhich is a direct apprehension of thusness, without the mediation
of conceptualization and language, and hence without any framework at all.
We may recapitulate this interpretation of the three-nature theory through the
following diagram:


reality viewed in terms of conceptual construction and subject-object duality
referential objects posited as distinct from the mind that confronts them
the framework of ordinary, deluded sentient beings
reality viewed as a causally interdependent flow of representations (
referential objects not affirmed, but representations themselves are posited
the framework of representation-only (vijapti), adopted by bodhisattvas
non-conceptually-constructing awareness of thusness (
not even mind taken to exist, not even representations posited
the absence of frameworks of fully awakened buddhas

I will conclude this section with two brief observations. First, we may
notice that on this reading of the three-nature theory, Yogcra thought would
be able to account for the shifting from one framework to another, through
characterizing different frameworks as hierarchically ordered descriptions
within the domain of what is understood to be conventional truth (Tzohar
2011, 244), in which some conventional frameworks might be judged as being
more or less expedient, fruitful, conducive to the aim for which the language
is intended (Carnap 1950, 31), viz., the aim of spiritual realization, or moving
towards awakening (bodhi). Second, while it might seem somewhat odd to
Sthiramati, in his subcommentary to the Madhyntavibhga, offers a list of various Yogcra terms for
ultimate reality (see Yamaguchi 1934, 50).

Buddhist Fictionalism


characterize the perfected nature as the absence of any framework, this characterization is quite consistent with the Carnap-Yablo account of fictionalist
frameworks, since a framework is understood to be a system of new ways of
speaking (Carnap 1950, 21), and insofar as the perfected nature, after all, is
understood as a domain beyond conceptualization and language.

Reasons for Adopting Buddhist Fictionalism

To conclude, I will present three reasons for adopting a fictionalist approach in
developing Buddhist philosophy. As indicated earlier, by Buddhist philosophy
I mean more specifically a Yogcra-inflected form of Mahyna Buddhist
philosophy, one that would incorporate the insights of what may be referred
to as the Yogcra-Vijnavda,13 but which would also extend this tradition into
the contemporary context, taking into account the not inconsiderable advances in
various domains of thought (e.g., logic, mathematics, quantum mechanics, etc., as
well as the semiotic sciences of linguistics, cultural anthropology, history of religions, etc.). Again, the three reasons are offered as recommended principles that
might usefully guide the project of extrapolating Buddhist philosophy into a modern
milieu. The three are anti-realism, Wittgensteinianism, and self-reflexivity.14
(1) Anti-realism: Regarding the meaning of the term, Chalmers states that the
basic question of metaontology is: are there objective answers to the basic question
of ontology? Here ontological realists say yes, and ontological anti-realists say no
(2009, 77). Siderits contrasts anti-realism with metaphysical nihilism, pointing out
that while according to metaphysical nihilism it is ultimately true that nothing
whatsoever exists, According to global anti-realism, on the other hand, the very
notion of an ultimate truth, of there being an ultimate nature of reality, is incoherent
(2003, 132). So anti-realism is the view that there are no objective, ultimate answers
to ontological questions (which is clearly quite different from affirming that nothing
exists).15 There is a long and hallowed tradition within Mahyna Buddhism of
eschewing ontological-realist positions, and while it may seem rather unusual for a
religious tradition, there is a strong tendency in many forms of Mahyna Buddhist
thought of dispensing with the project of articulating a final ontology as a foundation.

The usage of this term is drawn from Bueschers The Inception of Yogcra-Vijnavda and clarified in
my review of that work: First, by FYogcra-Vijnavda_ Buescher means to exclude other branches of
Buddhist doctrinal thought (e.g., Sarvstivda, Sautrntika, and Madhyamaka), while at once including and
distinguishing the original and earlier stages of the broad stream of thought that would come to be variously
referred to as Yogcra, Cittamtra, or Vijnavda (three terms that occur in classical Indian and Tibetan
works). Second, Buescher takes the defining feature of Yogcra-Vijnavda thought to be the employment ofthe three concepts of svabhvatraya (threefold nature), vijaptimtra(t) (representation-only, or
purely noetic constitution in Bueschers terms), and layavijna (store consciousness, as this is often
rendered, or latent consciousness in Bueschers translation) (DAmato 2009b).
For those who properly interpret Hegels Aufhebung, my three reasons attempt to articulate the three
moments of the dialectic: (1) universality (Allgemeinheit), (2) particularity (Besonderheit), and (3) individuality (Einzelheit).
Tillemans states that Madhyamaka Buddhist anti-realism rejects the view that things are what they are
because of the properties they have intrinsically, independently of our conceptions (kalpan) of them, our
linguistic designations (prajapti), and our actions upon (pravr: tti) them (2011, 163).


M. DAmato

Although there are certainly other ways to work out the Buddhist commitment to antirealism, fictionalism recommends itself as an elegant and defensible approach.
(2) Wittgensteinianism: The resonances between Buddhism and Wittgenstein have
been remarked upon by many, and it is with good reason that in his study of
Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship, Tuck devotes an entire
chapter to Buddhism after Wittgenstein.16 Tucks aim is to call our attention to the
process of isogesis (as opposed to exegesis); he defines isogesis as the act of
productive understanding whereby contemporary interpreters of Buddhist texts
must employ their personal and cultural perspectives if they are to find what they
read intelligible (1990, 16), and believes that all interpretations are in some sense
isogetical. In the spirit of embracing the inexorability of isogesis, I would affirm that a
contemporary Buddhist philosophy should develop along Wittgensteinian lines,
primarily because of the Wittgensteinian approach to philosophy as therapy: There
is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different
therapies (Philosophical Investigations 133; Wittgenstein 1953).17 As Fogelin
articulates Wittgensteins approach, Philosophers are led into confusion because
they are antecedently disposed to view various uses of language in ways inappropriate to themThe proper task of philosophyindeed, its whole taskis to induce us
to abandon such improper perspectives (1996, 34). Such an approach to philosophy
as therapy resonates well with the tenor of Buddhism as a soteriology. Furthermore,
the project of developing a Wittgensteinian Buddhist philosophy would be best
supported by adopting a fictionalist approach to ontologyan approach that leaves
practices as they are without attempting to be the final arbiter regarding what entities
should be posited as existent: Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use
of language; it can in the end only describe it (PI 124). In taking such a
Wittgensteinian approach, Buddhist thinkers might address a number of issues that
were not specifically discussed by traditional forms of Buddhist philosophye.g.,
issues in the philosophy of science, the philosophy of mathematics, etc.while still
upholding the spirit of Buddhist teachings.
(3) Self-reflexivity: It strikes me that Buddhisms strength as a tradition of thought
lies in its capacity for self-reflexivity, in its ability to incorporate even Buddhism
itself in any analysis of the possible ensnarement of concepts and language.18 Such a
level of self-reflexivity is, I believe, a necessary condition for any mode of religiosity
to be taken seriously in an era informed by psychoanalysis and the historical method
insofar as depth psychologys analysis of the psyche and the historical methods
analysis of cultural phenomena have so deeply impacted our fundamental understanding of religion. Adopting a fictionalist approach to ontology allows for the
possibility of furthering Buddhisms forms of philosophical analysis while

Tuck (1990, 7879) points out that the interpretation of Ngrjuna in Wittgensteinian terms may even be
seen in the 1960s, in the work of Frederick Streng.
Cf., Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language (PI 109).
The philosophers treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness (PI 255).
FThe tendency may be seen, for example, in the trope of the dharma as a raft, the view of the dharma as
giving up all views, the claim that Buddhist doctrine is like one illusory king defeating another, the
statement found in many Mahyna stras that the Buddha never uttered a word, the Madhyamaka account
of the ultimate goal as the cessation of all conceptual proliferation (sarva-prapaca-upaama) or the
Madhyntavibhgas claim that when the Buddhist analysis of the nature of things has done its work it will
itself be consumed in the flames of non-conceptualization_ (DAmato2008, 28).

Buddhist Fictionalism


maintaining the capacity for self-reflexively superseding previous forms of analysis

further revising, refining, and replacing previous fictionalist frameworks while
asymptotically approaching a goal that is never quite reducible to conceptual terms.
Furthermore, while I take the attainment of a non-conceptual awareness to be
soteriologically significant to Mahyna Buddhism, I do not believe that this should
be interpreted as cutting off conceptualization (which is semiotically regressive), but
rather as changing ones relation to it (which is semiotically progressive).19 It is my
contention here that the details of such a project might be helpfully worked out in
terms of fictionalism.

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