Journal of Indian Philosophy

, Volume 47, Issue 4, pp 749–777 | Cite as

From Scepticism to Nihilism: A Nihilistic Interpretation of Nāgārjuna’s Refutations

  • Shaoyong YeEmail author


On the basis of Nāgārjuna’s works, especially the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, this paper proposes a sceptic presupposition as the departure point of Nāgārjuna’s refutations. This presupposition invalidates perceptual knowledge, and thus the identities of existents (svabhāva) can only be deemed as referents assumed by concepts (nāman, vikalpa, etc.). Then the “confinement principle,” a theorem tacitly applied in Nāgārjuna’s arguments, is justified, i.e., any definition or description of a concept would necessarily confine its assumed referent to an invariable and isolated state. This principle enables Nāgārjuna to deduce contradictions between the static and isolated nature of the assumed referent, and the activity in which it must be involved. Notions of both a static identity and its activity are deep-rooted in all referential mental activities of sentient beings. Hence all concepts are found to be self-contradictory and therefore devoid of referents (niḥsvabhāva), namely, empty (śūnya). Thus, Nāgārjuna is refuting the whole intelligible world, and his position can be identified as epistemological nihilism—nothing within our ken can possibly be.


Nāgārjuna Madhyamaka Epistemological nihilism Buddhist philosophy 


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Some parts of this paper are already included in Ye (2017). Thanks are due to Professor Eli Franco who has been kind enough to read through an earlier draft of this paper and provided valuable suggestions. I am very grateful to Dr. Anne MacDonald, Dr. Zheng Zemian, Dr. Han Sui, Dr. Zhu Chengming, Mr. Hua Liyu, Ms. Ting Lee Ling, Ms. Liu Tianxue and Dr. Mattia Salvini for the help and advice in many aspects. Thanks are also due to Dr. Diego Loukota who took the trouble of checking my English. Needless to say, any errors that remain are my own.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of South Asian Studies, School of Foreign LanguagesPeking UniversityBeijingPeople’s Republic of China

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