Terminology: Emptiness and form, nebulosity and pattern


Nebulosity and pattern are key concepts in this book. They are closely related to the Buddhist notions of emptiness and form. For several reasons, I’ve chosen not to use “emptiness” and “form,” and invented these new terms instead.

First, “emptiness” in English has a common usage with regard to [gloss meaningness]: it is the feeling of alienation that comes with rejecting it. Emptiness in this sense is an emotional correlate of nihilism, or the perception of meaninglessness. “Emptiness” in Buddhist philosophy means something different. Worse, what it means is related to the Western use, but in a complex way. Talking about Buddhist emptiness in a non-Buddhist context seems bound to cause confusion.

Second, the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness and form is famously contentious. Various Buddhist schools each have their own explanations, and vitriolically attack each others’ interpretations. I don’t want to take sides in these battles. I also don’t want to argue about whether my own understanding or explanation of emptiness and form is correct (according to the standards of some Buddhist school or other).

Third, the philosophy of emptiness and form is also famously obscure. It is so abstract and vague that it is hard to know whether the divergent interpretations are actually discussing the same thing, or if they talk past one another because they discuss different topics. It is hard to know whether any of the writers in the field are talking about anything at all, or whether they are discussing something purely imaginary. It is hard to know how one could know which of the accounts is right, or even what it would mean for them to be right or wrong.1

As a result, it is unclear whether “nebulosity and pattern,” as I use the words here, are the same thing as someone’s version of “emptiness and form,” or not. My concepts are influenced particularly by the Aro gTér explanations of emptiness and form; but I am uncertain whether they are identical.

I think that it is probably possible to give completely clear and precise explanations of “nebulosity” and “pattern.”2 This might be useful to the philosophy of emptiness and form. Even for someone who believes “nebulosity and pattern” are different from emptiness and form, they are sufficiently similar that a clear account of one might clarify the other. It might at minimum serve as a challenge to Buddhist philosophers to formulate a comparably clear account.

But I am not going to do that in this book. This book is meant for a general readership, for whom a lengthy discussion of exactly what “nebulosity” and “pattern” mean would be a distraction. (Never mind a discussion of how they relate to the various Buddhist theories of emptiness—interesting as that might be to some.)

I have a sketch of another book on that subject. If only I could write everything at once…

  1. 1.As it happens, I do have opinions about these questions. I may present them somewhere, someday; but I’m unsure that it would be useful. In any case, it’s a topic that doesn’t belong on this web site.
  2. 2.Clear and precise enough for analytic philosophy. Some math would be required—enough to impress analytic philosophers.