Source: p 362 Top. Introducing Philosophy for Canadians: A Text with Integrated Readings (2011 1 ed).

Nagasena's point? As it is with 'chariot', so it is with 'person'. Like 'chariot', 'person' refers not to a substance—there are no substances in the Buddhist scheme—but simply [1.] to a set of attributes that we can directly apprehend or know [End of 1.]. In the case of a chariot, those attributes are the axle, the wheels, the poles, the yoke, the reins, the flag-post, and so forth. In the case of a person, those attributes are transient phenomena known to Buddhist as 'the five skandhas': 'forms, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness'. So if a person is nothing more than a bundle of ever-changing attributes, then there is nothing to him over and above those attributes; and if there is nothing to him over and above those ever-changing attributes, then there is nothing to which a name such as 'Nagasena' can correspond or refer. There is no fixed 'I', no substantial soul, no rock-solid self, no enduring ego, no static core of being hidden beneath the flimsy wrapping of phenomenal fact.

[ Buddhism.about.com : ] Now the King acknowledged the designation "chariot" depended on these constituent parts, but that "chariot" itself is a concept, or a mere name.

Just so, Nagasena said, "Nagasena" is a designation for something conceptual. It is a mere name. [2.] When the constituent parts are present [End of 2.] we call it a chariot; [2.] When the Five Skandhas are present [End of 3.] , we call it a being.

I abbreviate 1-3 (i.e. attributes + the dependence on the constituent attributes) to 'Synergy'. So a Synergy ⊋ this Synergy's attributes.

Nagasena argues that names (e.g. 'Nagasena', 'chariot') refer to Synergy.
But why cannot Synergies (1 and 2) be Substances? Synergies must be something, correct?


Substance refers, literally, to what "stands under" a thing. It is something distinct from the attributes of the thing, the "what-it-is" (quidditas, to borrow Scholastic terminology) that makes it, e.g., a person or chariot or whatever. Nagasena's point is that there are no substances in that sense, i.e., there are only the attributes (technically skandas, which is more normally translated "aggregates"), so that there is nothing to the chariot apart from its attributes. Hence, there is nothing substantial to the chariot. It's not precisely that the chariot is nothing; it's that the name "chariot" refers to nothing but these attributes. In your terms, the synergy is nothing other than its attributes (i.e. it's not a superset of the attributes; it's not really anything at all). If you want to term this a "substance" that's fine, but it's not a substance in the sense that Nagasena is attempting to deny, precisely because the concept of "chariot" doesn't add anything to the wheels, the axel, the reins, etc. To put the argument in a slightly different way, imagine the chariot is destroyed and its parts scatter. There's a wheel over here, the axel's over there, the flag pole sunk into the sea, etc. Nagasena's point is (roughly) that there aren't any fewer things than there were before.

To move a bit deeper with the argument from a Buddhist perspective, the important thing about these attributes is that they are nothing other than percepts, feelings, etc. ("phenomenal facts"). They don't refer to anything other than the operation of consciousness per se. The chariot isn't a thing; it isn't there at all. It's simply brought into our perception by the operation of consciousness.

In Western philosophy, Nagasena's chariot argument is known as the Ship of Theseus, though it's usually discussed with a different end in mind, i.e., the identity of the thing rather than its existence or non-existence.

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