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It is common practice to speak of Nagarjuna's theory of emptiness and Doctrine of Two Truths.

Why do we call one a theory and the other a doctrine?

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    Per Google they seem to be used about the same: doctrine of emptiness (19,900 results), theory of emptiness (19,000 results). – ChrisW Apr 27 at 11:57
  • @ChrisW - Aha. I seem to have gained a false impression of the way these words are commonly used, perhaps a quirk of what I happen to have read. Common practice is not what I thought it was. All is explained. This seems a very satisfactory answer. – PeterJ Apr 27 at 16:24
  • Should I repost it as an answer instead of a comment? – ChrisW Apr 27 at 16:35
  • It's never called a "theory of two truths" though. I wonder whether "two truths" is a doctrine because it's saying something about doctrine (i.e. that there are two different kinds of doctrine); whereas "emptiness" is a theory in that it might be saying something about "things" even regardless of doctrine. Maybe the former is analogous to studying "Eng. Lit." (perhaps unfalsifiable), and the latter analogous to studying "Physics" (perhaps requiring proof), but I don't know. – ChrisW Apr 27 at 16:41
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    This seems plausible to me -- When will Einstein's theory of relativity become a law of relativity? -- i.e. consistent with how physicists might use the term. See also Laws and theories -- and note that e.g. Newton's laws are merely "excellent approximations at the scales and speeds of everyday life" (i.e. non-relativistic). – ChrisW Apr 28 at 10:38
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I'm not sure there's a meaningful difference (between "theory" and "doctrine"), or perhaps not one which every agrees on.

Per Google these seem to be used with the same frequency/popularity:

It's never called a "theory of two truths" though.

If you use the Ngram viewer (which I think only searches books), then "doctrine of emptiness" is the more popular.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=doctrine+of+emptiness%2C+theory+of+emptiness&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3

So published (book) authors tend to call it a doctrine.


As an aside -- not about Buddhism but about the way the word "theory" is used in English -- the word "theory" isn't necessarily pejorative (e.g. meaning "speculative , unproven, and wrong"): especially when scientists used that word.

For example it tends to be called "Einstein's Theory of Relativity", not because that's wrong or unproven, but apparently because it's an explanation (perhaps even akin to a doctrine) not just an observation.

This seems plausible to me -- When will Einstein's theory of relativity become a law of relativity? -- i.e. consistent with how physicists might use the term.

See also Laws and theories explained on Physics.SE.

Also note that e.g. Newton's laws are merely "excellent approximations at the scales and speeds of everyday life" (i.e. non-relativistic) -- a "law" needn't be "more true" than a "theory".

But the shades of meaning are a bit subtle, perhaps you can't infer much about why people might use or the other.

Certainly "doctrine" though, anyway, right?

  • Thanks Chris. I think this deals with the issue. It seems we're free to choose how to use the words. I wonder why 'theory of two truths' is never used. . . . – PeterJ Apr 29 at 10:45
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A Theory may refer to any group of hypothesis or facts used to explain some aspect of nature.

The concept of Doctrine may overlap with the definition of theory, with the difference that the former might contain some prescriptive ideas or principles to guide some actions. In your question, the Doctrine of Two Truths might understood as a guide to study the Dharma, telling you how to interpret some of the teachings.

Kind regards!

  • Thanks Brian. This doesn't quite answer the question though. What would be wrong with calling them the doctrine of emptiness and the theory of two truths? . – PeterJ Apr 27 at 11:46
  • Great question! I have no idea. That's why I used that many 'might's and 'may's. I just felt that my answer may (again) complement another future answer. Kind regards! – Brian Díaz Flores Apr 27 at 11:56
  • Why are the labeling of these ideas important? (I’m not trying to be sarcastic, it’s a sincere question). – Erik Apr 27 at 14:24
  • @Erik - I write about this stuff and want to say something quite bold. I'm checking my facts. . – PeterJ Apr 27 at 16:18
  • @PeterJ Fair enough! – Erik Apr 27 at 20:50

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