Why is emptiness not empty? The limits of Schopenhauer’s ontology.
Schopenhauer maintains that his doctrine shares features with Buddhist philosophy, but a careful consideration of their conceptions of the nature of reality shows that the similarity between the systems is superficial. I argue that the dissimilarity is clearest in their divergent concepts of emptiness and substance.
For Schopenhauer, something is empty if it is empty of will. So for him emptiness is a negative concept, indicating absence of something. It is will which gives the world meaning. Though there are various Buddhist accounts of emptiness, I draw on Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika. In Madhyamaka, that which is absent is svabhava, best described as inherent existence. However, emptiness as not a property of something; it is not an underlying reality of phenomena. Emptiness lacks inherent existence – it too is empty. Unlike Schopenhauer's negative concept, emptiness in Madhyamaka must not be reified.
Nagarjuna’s notion of emptiness is self-reflexive, that is, emptiness is itself empty. Schopenhauer’s notion of emptiness is not. This divergence is explicable in terms of their ontologies, that is, their understandings of the nature of reality. Schopenhauer is bound by a substance ontology. Nagarjuna rejects any substance ontology. This is a symptom of deeper differences between the philosophical approaches.
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