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 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. 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. Clear and precise enough for analytic philosophy. Some math would be required—enough to impress analytic philosophers.


Meaning Less or Ness

I totally agree with you that “Emptiness” is a poor translation to English because of the connotations not present in most of the Buddhist meanings.

But with you offer this new words with tons of caveats:
(1) Your term is influence by Aro
(2) Uncertain if it even equals the Aro version of emptiness
(3) No effort to equal any of the other multiple Buddhist theories of emptiness
(4) You don’t care to argue if your version of emptiness/nebulosity is correct

With all those caveats, what are we suppose to do?
a) evaluate it alone as yet another theory of emptiness
b) forget all the past “emptiness” debates and evaluate your writings independently and test them somehow – as if you are starting yet another brand of Buddhism?

I look forward more to seeing what you are trying to accomplish.

No Buddhism here

I hope readers will take this site just as what it is, and evaluate it against their personal experience of struggling with problems of meaningness.

Importantly, this isn’t meant to be Buddhism at all. In fact, what I was trying to say in this piece is that I want to leave the relationship between Buddhism and what I’m doing undefined; and that’s why I’m avoiding using the word “emptiness.”

This strategic ambiguity is to avoid having to argue with two hypothetical responses from Buddhists:

(1) This is Buddhism; you are ripping off Buddhist ideas and presenting them as your own.

(2) This is not real Buddhism; you have a wrong understanding of Buddhism and your distortions will lead people to hell.

The answer to (1) is that I’ve explicitly said that I’m inspired by Buddhism and much of whatever is of value here comes from there. I’m not presenting any of it as original. (Some of it might be original, but I don’t want to bother figuring out exactly what. If I were trying to get famous or a philosophy job or something, I’d have to do that, and explain how fantastically important and brilliant my contribution is, but I’m not.)

The answer to (2) is that I’m not claiming that any of it is actually Buddhist at all. No one should come here looking for information about Buddhism, and if you take what I say as Buddhism, it will probably send you to vajra hell.

I’m afraid that, at this point, I haven’t got enough of the introductory material up on the site for it to be possible to see what I am trying to do.

I got sucked into writing the metablog series about monism, because that’s what I’ve been studying myself in the past few months. Unfortunately, that derailed my work on the overview. The new pages about nebulosity are a return to that. More coming soon, I hope.

(But in the mean time, the last few pages of the monism series are languishing—not to mention my vampire novel. Aaack!)


Laughing uproariously – that was fun!

I think I get it. Here is what I here you saying:

“Here is how I am seeing things today. Thanks to those who have inspired me ….
But every mistake here is my own fun creation. Enjoy the ride – I hope it helps one other person as I have fun exploring!”

'ad a giggle @ vajra hell.

Duckland's picture

‘ad a giggle @ vajra hell.

I’m wondering if you can say anything more about ‘I think that it is probably possible to give completely clear and precise explanations of “nebulosity” and “pattern.”’

That is a most intriguing claim.

Probably possible

I’m wondering if you can say anything more about ‘I think that it is probably possible to give completely clear and precise explanations of “nebulosity” and “pattern.”’

Mmm. Not much, at this point. It will/would take building up an enormously greater amount of background conceptual machinery. So far I’ve been trying to write the book for a hypothetical “general intelligent reader,” which makes getting to anything really difficult very slow. I may skip ahead at some point and present that part of the story in a form that assumes fairly deep knowledge of several branches of philosophy, mathematics, and physics.

Part of the story is foreshadowed in “Boundaries, objects, and connections, though.

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This page is in the section Appendix: Terminological choices,
      which is in Appendices.

The next page in this section is Terminology: Non-dual.

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This page’s topics are Buddhism and Terminology.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2020 David Chapman. Some links are part of Amazon Affiliate Program.