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Tautology: Total Eclipse of Meaning

The word “tautology” literally means “repeating what has been said” (from Greek tauto for “same” and logos for “saying”)(1), as in "A is A." The philosophical East and West differ in terms of the value of saying the same thing twice.

From the stand-point of the Western thought, Popeye’s “I yam what I yam” is empty rhetoric. After all, to say the same thing twice is to say nothing new; thus, the pejorative connotation of the word tautology. Tautologies, in the circularity of their reasoning, are viewed as inherently meaningless, as a total waste of breath, and, at best, as just argumentative.

From the stand-point of the Eastern thought, however, Popeye’s “I yam what I yam” is a reflection of an enlightened mind, of an existential sailor that has finally cast the anchor of his consciousness in the abyss of non-duality…

Let’s take a closer look…

Zhuangzi (365-290 BCE), an ancient Chinese dialectician, writes in the “Equality of All Things:” “A thing seems to be so when we say it is so; it does not, when we say that it is not. A path is formed by being walked on. <…> How is it so? It is so because it is so. How is it not so? It is not so because it is not so.” (2).

“What is this?! What kind of statement is this?!! What does this mean?!!! This makes no sense…” – rebels the Western mind. “Exactly! Nonsense, on one had; wisdom, on the other hand… Except that the enlightened mind is one-handed…” - it half-clarifies, half-confuses, and, on the whole, enlightens, albeit with misleading smart-aleck agreeableness.

How are we, the Logicians of the West, to make sense of this illogical self-referencing circularity? We are not… That’s exactly the point. You see, we’ve come to expect the language to say something, to add some informational value. But the Eastern thought seems to pursue an altogether different vector: in saying nothing, it is trying to avoid saying something that isn’t…

True, tautologies – irrefutable in their truism – seem to be the only way to say something without distorting the reality of what is…

You see, to describe is to differentiate; and to differentiate is to draw out a boundary between “this” and “that;” and to draw a boundary is to separate what Eastern thought views as indivisible and inseparable. Thus the Buddhist “ban” on discursive (i.e. labeling, judging) thought: each description draws a false, arbitrary, subjective line of distinction right through the undifferentiated Oneness of it all…

Listen to Zhuangzi, Garab Dorje and Suzuki collaborate on this point…

“Everything has its inherent character and its proper capability; there is nothing that is without these” (Zuangzi). Yet “there is no concept that can define the condition of ‘what is’” (Garab Dorjie, the Six Vajra Verses) (3). “A finger is needed to point at the moon, but what a calamity it would be if one took the finger for the moon” (Suzuki) (4).

So here we have it: a tautology says nothing. In so doing, a tautology is a total eclipse of meaning, but not with nonsense… with the transparence of acceptance!

“An apple is an apple. “ Such truism feeds no Adam’s thirst for knowledge. A tautology, from the stand-point of its informational value, is an empty calorie. Its point is not to feed the mind with information, but to prod the mind to accept what is as it is. The emphasis is not on the “what” or the “how” of what is but on the “isness of all things” (5).

Take the infamous tautological cliché - “it is what it is” - for example. “It is what it is” is, perhaps, both the most frequent-flyer tautology that there is and the closest we get to being philosophical in our day to day non-appraisal of things. This statement prompts us to let go of trying to understand the un-understandable and to shift to its acceptance as is.

While the Western mind pursues knowledge, the Eastern mind chases acceptance. The Logical mind says “How can I accept this if I don’t understand this?!” The Nondual mind says “How can I not accept this? If it exists, it is valid, whether I understand it or not…”

As close as we come to this “edge of certainty” (6) of trying to figure out what’s what, ultimately – from the stand-point of Buddhist epistemology (as I understand it) – knowledge is an illusion. Garab Dorjie, in the first verse of his Vajra Verses: “The nature of phenomena is nondual (and) <...> beyond the limits of the mind.”

Each word is a unit of description, each description is nothing but a finger pointing at the moon. With this in mind, all language is sign language, all language is just hand-waving; and no amount of hand-waving and gesturing at the moon equals the moon.

“It is what it is” is a powerful epistemological reality-check, but, to be faithfully non-dual, it is also not… Western thought seeks enlightenment through understanding, Eastern thought seeks enlightenment through confusion. Thus, the former needs declarative, dualistic “this is this, not that” statements, whereas the latter subsists on epistemologically tail-chasing circularity of “it is what it is.”

Look at how shamelessly, from the point of logic, Suzuki spins the web of confusion, negating a tautology with a tautology: “How hard, then, and yet how easy it is to understand the truth of Zen! Hard because to understand it is not to understand it; easy because not to understand it is to understand it” (4). Not only “A” is “A," but “A” is also “not-A.” To understand is both to understand and not to understand.

But that’s the epistemological ticket, per Zhuangzi: “Where there is no opposition between this view and that view, there is the pivot of the dao. As soon as this pivot is found, we stand in the center where we can respond without an end to changing views” (2).

As such, any tautology is a Point of Consensus and that’s what enables the eventual shift to a position of acceptance. “It is what it is” – who can disagree with that?!

The endless circularity of tautology (“it is what it is what it is what it is…” or “I am what I am what I am…”) vortexes us into the very center –point of the circle, into the common denominator of “is-ness.” “Everything that is, is,” or, put differently, “everything that exists, exists” – this is the stem-cell tautology that underlies all others that we can all agree on; as to the “how” and “what” of this “is,” it is a matter of perspective…

As the Western mind dismisses tautology as meaningless self-referencing, it preoccupies itself with nothing other than self-referencing. As soon as we begin to deviate from the truth that “it is what it is” we embark on an arbitrary, self-referencing tug-of-war of defining "it" as “this” or “that.” “It is this, not that” I insist, as you insist that this “this” is actually a “that.”

Let me close with the words of Dattatreya, an extreme non-dualist who had “shaken off” all attachment to “this” or “that” - “Some seek nonduality, others duality. They do not know the Truth, which is the same at all times and everywhere, which is devoid of both duality and nonduality" (7).

If the truth is the same at all times, it would appear that tautology, in saying the same thing over and over gain, by definition, is the only way to stay true to the message…

Tautology - nonsense or wisdom? Failure of description or language of acceptance? Both or neither? It is what it is. Can you accept that?

(1) Online Etymology Dictionary www.etymonline.com

(2) Zhuangzi (Kolak, D., The Longman Library of Primary Sources in Philosophy)

(3) Dzogchen: the Self-Perfected State (Norbu, C. N., Snow Lion Publications)

(4) An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (Suzuki, Grove Press)

(5) Double Vision: Duality and Nonduality in Human Experience (John Welwood, in “The Sacred mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy,” Prendergast et al., Paragon House)

(6) The Edge of Certainty: Dilemmas on the Buddhist Path (Fenner, Nicolas-Hays, Inc.)

(7) Advaita Vedanta: the Avadhuta Gita (One: Essential Writings on Nonduality” Katz, Sentinent Publications)

Copyright, 2008

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. 

2 Comment count
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Is Spinich Needed?

This is an informative and comprehensible piece of writing. Thank you.

I wonder if I have an Eastern mind.  I have realized for a long time that Popeye's "I yam what I yam" is both self-awareness and acceptance. An attitude to envy.

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Thanks, Dale!

I had the exact same sentiment about the Popeye's mantra...  An attitude to envy... and cultivate.

Thanks for your thoughts, Dale!