I will end my Westerhoff/Nagarjuna coverage with one more selection from right at the end of Westerhoff's book:
According to the Madhyamaka view of truth, there can be no such thing as ultimate truth, a theory describing how things really are, independent of our interests and conceptual resources employed in describing it. All one is left with is conventional truth, truth that consists in agreement with commonly accepted practices and conventions. These are the truths that are arrived at when we view the world through our linguistically formed conceptual framework. But we should be wary of denigrating these conventions as a distorting device which incorporates our specific interests and concerns. The very notion of “distortion” presupposes that there is a world untainted by conceptuality out there (even if our minds can never reach it) which is crooked and bent to fit our cognitive grasp. But precisely this notion of a “way things really are” is argued by the Mādhyamika to be incoherent. There is no way of investigating the world apart from our linguistic and conceptual practices, if only because these practices generate the notion of the “world” and of the “objects” in it in the first place. To speak of conventional reality as distorted is therefore highly misleading, unless all we want to say is that our way of investigating the world is inextricably bound up with the linguistic and conceptual framework we happen to employ.
This passage hammers my point in yesterday's post that Nagarjuna is not a Kantian, or an idealist like Berkeley. If you need a modern parallel, he's more like a very strong pragmatist in his epistemology: there is the world categorized and nothing beyond that (Nelson Goodman, whose episode I'll be posting within the next week, is roughly in this camp). There is a difference in emphasis, of course. For the pragmatist, the experienced world is all we need to lead our lives, where for the Buddhist, realizing its non-ultimate nature and being able to experience this on a moment to moment basis leads is supposed to fundamentally reorient us philosophically. The pragmatist philosophy doesn't center on Enlightenment. Still, this situation leaves the Buddhist ethicist in roughly the same position as the pragmatist ethicist. Here's more Westerhoff, later in the same section of his book, answering the objection that Nagarjuna's view leads to the sort of relativism that would make normative ethics impossible:
...Any culture with which we can interact at all, that is one that shares a form of life with us, is one that shares with us at least some evaluative standards. If it did not, we would not be able to ascribe to it anything like rational forms of belief formation or ethical norms, so that the whole idea of rational or ethical divergence and rational or ethical criticism would lose its point. The Mādhyamika could then argue that even though different cultures can have different standards none of which can be regarded as ultimately true (since there is no such thing as ultimate truth), still some standards can be seen to be better than others, for example in terms of overall coherence with our practices (which are also a part of conventional truth) or in terms of their ability to reduce pain.
This view of Buddhism is very different from the caricature of "all of this is illusion; let's transcend it!" Conventional reality needs to be taken seriously, because in an important sense, that's all there is. At the same time, realizing that it's conventional (and hence flexible) puts things in a certain perspective that is freeing on a practical and spiritual level. Though I do not buy the Buddhist story that we can (or should!) unmake our habits of perception that posit material objects, I'm willing recognize this as a way of pointing out the absurdity of life, for what that's worth.