Social Origins of Buddhist Nominalism? Non-articulation of the “Social Self” in Early Buddhism and Nāgārjuna

Schlieter, Jens (2019). Social Origins of Buddhist Nominalism? Non-articulation of the “Social Self” in Early Buddhism and Nāgārjuna. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 47(4), pp. 727-747. Springer 10.1007/s10781-019-09398-x

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In the following, it will be argued that Nāgārjuna (ca. 150 CE) adopts a Buddhist nominalism that encompasses not only a position towards abstract entities, but resonates with a nominalist perspective on the “social reality” of persons. Early Buddhist texts, such as the Suttanipāta, argue that human persons defy a classification in hierarchic “classes” (jāti), because there is no moral substance, e.g. of Brahmins. Differences between individuals do not exist by nature, since it is the individual that realizes difference according to the specific personal realization of action (karman) and moral cultivation. Buddhist “nominalism,” therefore, has at least one of its central roots in a rejection of a socially privileged “selves,” a stratified social hegemony, and religious truth claims. Nāgārjuna, on his part, radicalizes nominalism as a threefold correlation of the “non-articulated self,” a “non-articulated” reality, and finally, a “non-articulated” dimension even within all concepts, names, and designations. In this vein, Nāgārjuna’s śūnyavāda can be seen as a consequent attempt to neutralize unwanted social and psychological consequences of ontological language-use. Nāgārjuna even self-critically questions the position that the workings of a Buddhist path of liberation can be articulated, which seems to be a remarkable parallel to certain roots of Western nominalism.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute for the Science of Religion

UniBE Contributor:

Schlieter, Jens


100 Philosophy
200 Religion








Ursina Wüthrich

Date Deposited:

19 Dec 2019 12:31

Last Modified:

19 Dec 2019 14:02

Publisher DOI:





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