‘Snakes and Ladders’ – ‘Therapy’ as Liberation in Nagarjuna and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

Joshua William Smith

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This paper reconsiders the notion that Nagarjuna and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus may only be seen as comparable under a shared ineffability thesis, that is, the idea that reality is impossible to describe in sensible discourse. Historically, Nagarjuna and the early Wittgenstein have both been widely construed as offering either metaphysical theories or attempts to refute all such theories. Instead, by employing an interpretive framework based on a ‘resolute’ reading of the Tractatus, I suggest we see their philosophical affinity in terms of a shared conception of philosophical method without proposing theses. In doing so, this offers us a new way to understand Nagarjuna’s characteristic claims both to have ‘no views’ (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 13.8 and 27.30) and refusal to accept that things exist ‘inherently’ or with ‘essence’ (svabhāva). Therefore, instead of either a view about the nature of a mind-independent ‘ultimate reality’ or a thesis concerning the rejection of such a domain, I propose that we understand Nagarjuna’s primary aim as ‘therapeutic’, that is, concerned with the dissolution of philosophical problems. However, this ‘therapy’ should neither be confined to the psychotherapeutic metaphor nor should it be taken to imply a private enlightenment only available to philosophers. Instead, for Nagarjuna and Wittgenstein, philosophical problems are cast as a source of disquiet for all of us; what their work offers is a soteriology, a means towards our salvation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)411–430
Number of pages20
Issue number2
Early online date25 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021


  • Liberation
  • Madhyamaka
  • Nagarjuna
  • Therapy
  • Wittgenstein

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