How often does one find an essay penned by a western philosopher — that opens with a quote by Nagarjuna? Graham Priest’s fascinating Beyond true and false becomes one of very few, when it begins by citing the illustrious Buddhist philosopher-sage thusly:
The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature. For they have only one nature: no-nature.
What follows is a wonderfully clear exploration of the relationship between Aristotelian logic — rooted in the Principle of the Excluded Middle and the Principle of Non-Contradiction — and Buddhist logical systems oriented around the catuskoti (Sanskrit) or tetralemma (the Greek name for the same or similar system). In brief, the difference is as follows: In standard Aristotelian logic, a statement can be either true or false; there is no third alternative. In the Buddhist logic of the catuskoti (literally: “four corners”) a statement can be (1) true, (2) false, (3) both true and false, or (4) neither true nor false.
What Mr. Priest suggests is a way of representing the Buddhist catuskoti — as well as the “ineffable” Absolute (i.e. the Tao that cannot be spoken) which transcends the four choices of true, false, both true and false, and neither true nor false — in the language of a western system of logic, known as plurivalent logic. Along the way, he offers some enticing hints of how the work of various western philosophers (e.g. Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger) dovetails with the insights of Nagarjuna.
My sense is that Mr. Priest misses the boat a bit in his presentation of — and objections to — the distinction between the approximate and absolute Ultimate (or, in his translation, the “nominal” and “real” Ultimate): drawn by the 15th-century Tibetan Buddhist scholar Gorampa, and earlier by the 8th-century Indian Buddhist Shantarakshita. I’ll come back to this in a future post. For now, I’ll once again recommend — particularly for those with an interest in western v. Buddhist systems of logic — that you check out and enjoy this rich essay in its entirety.