Nagarjuna’s real achievement was a rigorous analysis of phenomenon in order to reveal the incoherence of the idea that things possess an intrinsic nature, properties, or an eternal existence that do not depend on anything outside themselves. This is the concept of shunyata, or ‘emptiness’—a term that refers to the lack of autonomous existence, not nihilism or non-existence. Nor is there a Self, with an unchanging, innate essence. The Self is our own conceptual construct, with which we refer to a set of shifting psycho-physical states. That we rarely see things this way is a highly pragmatic self-deception that helps us survive. We can however recognize this and attain the right self-awareness through continuous practice.
Nagarjuna rejected the idea of an ineffable reality outside the grasp of the conceptual schema that we are heir to as survival-minded creatures (that idea would be a back-door way of attributing an essence to reality). Rather, it is meaningless to speak of an ineffable reality, or of anything outside our conceptual schema.
…To Nagarjuna, says Jan Westerhoff—author of a recent and brilliant work of scholarship on Nagarjuna’s corpus—we invariably arrive at our truths “… through our linguistically formed conceptual framework. But we should be wary of denigrating these conventions as a distorting device which incorporates our specific interests and concerns. The very notion of ‘distortion’ presupposes that there is a world untainted by conceptuality out there (even if our minds can never reach it) which is crooked and bent to fit our cognitive grasp. But precisely this notion of a ‘way things really are’ is argued by the Madhyamika to be incoherent. There is no way of investigating the world apart from our linguistic and conceptual practices, if only because these practices generate the notion of the ‘world’ and the ‘objects’ in it in the first place.”
Plato? Kant? You guys listening?