In “Graham Priest on Buddhism and Logic”  Massimo Pigliucci recently commented on a piece I wrote on logic and Buddhist metaphysics, “Beyond True and False” . In this, he explained why he was not persuaded. In an admirable spirit of open-mindedness, he invited me to comment on his thoughts. So, in a similar spirit, this is what I’m doing.
First, let me say that Massimo and I agree on more than we disagree. I agree, for example, that the point of philosophy is to come to a reasoned — and of course, fallible — evaluation of truths about metaphysics, ethics, and so on. That was just not my aim in the piece I wrote, which was to show how the techniques of modern logic can help to understand certain Buddhist views. To evaluate, one must first understand. Secondly, I agree on the virtue of clarity, and abhor obscurantism as much as he does. But, again, having said that, many issues in mathematics and the natural sciences are complex and difficult. One should not expect that they can be spelled out in a way that can be understood without a lot of hard work. Philosophy is no different.
So let me turn to the things about which we disagree. First some general comments. Let us start with logic. Massimo claims that one cannot be wrong in logic since it is purely formal. I find this ahistorical view surprising from someone who has such a grasp of the history of science. Logic (in one of the many senses of the word) is a theory about what follows from what. Western logicians have been producing such theories for about two and a half thousand years. The received view has changed over time, and later views often hold earlier views to be false. Thus, for example, some of the syllogisms Aristotle took to be valid are not held to be so by contemporary logicians. Aristotle held that contradictions do not imply everything; most modern logicians would disagree. One of the great early Medieval logicians, Abelard, held that any conditional of the form ‘if A then it is not the case that A’ is false; most modern logicians would disagree. In the 1960s most logicians held that the conditional ‘if the theory of evolution is false, people have evolved’ is true; few would now subscribe to this view. Are we at the end of history in the process of revising our views about logic?
Second, Buddhism. There is no one thing which is Buddhism, any more than there is one thing which is Christianity. Theravāda Buddhism is very different from Tantric Buddhism, which is very different from Zen Buddhism, and so on. And each of these, in turn, is many things. Each is a religion, a set of meditative and disciplinary practices, an organizational structure, a player in political structures. But each also endorses various philosophical views. It was some (and only some) of these views which were the concern of my article. Next, Buddhist philosophy — as engaged in by its notable historical practitioners — is no different from Western philosophy. For over two thousand years, Buddhist philosophers have been putting forward different views of metaphysics, ethics, and arguing with each other about which is right. Of course, if one’s only knowledge of Buddhism comes from contemporary popular works, one will not see this. One has to read the philosophers themselves, such as Candrakīrti, Tsongkhapa, Fazang — though I would not advise anyone to jump into this literature without a guide, any more than I would do this with Aristotle, Kant, or Wittgenstein .
In fact, Buddhist thought is one of the most rationalistic of views connected with a religion. There is no god, and so one is not expected to believe something simply because god is supposed to have revealed it. There is no distinction between natural and revealed thought, as there is in Christianity. Indeed, in the Kālāma Sūtra, the Buddha himself urges people not to believe something simply because some authority figure tells them (an attitude many contemporary Western philosophers would do well to take to heart). A person should accept something only if it makes sense to them.
Third, mysticism. The word is thrown around in a multitude of ways, but my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:
- The opinions, mental tendencies, of habits of thought and feeling, characteristic of mystics.
- Belief in the possibility of union with the Divine nature by means of ecstatic contemplation.
- Reliance on spiritual intuition as a means of acquiring knowledge of mysteries inaccessible to the understanding.
(1) is obviously not very helpful; (2) does not apply to Buddhism, since there is no god; and as for (3), spiritual intuition — whatever that is — plays no role in debates in Buddhist philosophy (as opposed to meditative practices). It is true that most Buddhists hold that one can have knowledge by acquaintance of certain aspects of reality. There is nothing very shocking in this. One could cite, here, the taste of a peach. They also hold that the content of some of these experiences cannot be captured in conceptual thought. That being so, one can hardly argue about the content of such an experience. One can certainly argue about whether there is such a thing, however. Debates concerning this matter are, in fact, a perennial theme in those parts of Western philosophy which concern the limits of our language or our concepts. One finds it — with a positive answer — in Plato, Anselm, Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger.
Next, a comment on the philosophers Massimo cites with approval and disapproval. Philosophy is written in many ways and styles: Plato’s is quite different from Aquinas’, which is different from Hume’s, which is different from Kant’s, which is different from Wittgenstein’s (two styles), which is different from Heidegger’s (two styles), which is different from Quine’s. And some philosophers are much better literary stylists than others. However, we do not read philosophers for their literary style, but for the content of the ideas and arguments. And this means that one often has to work at getting to grips with the ways in which they express themselves — which includes some understanding of the culture in which they are embedded. Eastern traditions of philosophy are no different from Western traditions in this regard.
Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamkakārikā (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way) — a book, incidentally, full of arguments, objections and counter-replies — is indeed cryptic, and a hard work to understand. A major reason for this is simple. Nāgārjuna was operating in a largely oral culture. Tracts were written in verse so that they could be more easily memorized. In teaching, students would recite the verses, and then the teacher would explain and comment on these. These discourses were called “autocommentaries,” and are much less cryptic. In the case of a number of Indian Buddhist texts, we have the autocommentary. In the case of the Mūlamadhyamkakārikā, this is, sadly, lost to us.
Next, Kant. The Critique of Pure Reason has one of the most appalling styles of any important philosophy book. It would be more than fair to describe the style of expression as obscure. Not that Kant had to write like that: Prolegomenon to any Future Metaphysics is much less indigestible. The Critique certainly fails Massimo’s “to hell with it” test. It’s still a great work of philosophy. Naturally, interpreting any philosopher of significance is going to be a contentious matter (my interpretation of Nāgārjuna included), but I find Massimo’s interpretation of the aspect of Kant’s thought at issue in my article unsustainable. He takes Kant’s claims about the noumenal realm as epistemological: we cannot know anything about it. And to be fair, Kant does express himself in this way sometimes. But if one looks at the reasons that Kant gives as to why we can know nothing, they are that one can say nothing. To say anything one has to apply the categories, and these do not apply to objects in this realm. Still, I do not expect to settle matters of Kantian interpretation here.
Next, Wittgenstein (who I think Massimo is prepared to tolerate) and Heidegger (whom he is certainly not). Matters are complicated here by the fact that each has an earlier and a later style, which are quite different. However, the Tractatus of the earlier Wittgenstein is gnomic and elusive in a way that Sein und Zeit of the earlier Heidegger is not. Wittgenstein’s later Philosophical Investigations is written in plain Anglo-Saxon — something one cannot say of some of Heidegger’s later writings. Does this make it easy to understand? Absolutely not. It is full of observations and remarks the point of which are never spelled out. I remember as a young philosopher reading the Investigations. I could make neither head nor tail of it till a colleague who was a Wittgenstein expert helped me to understand. Colleagues have also helped me understand Heidegger. I might say that, arguably, both Wittgenstein and Heidegger had philosophical reasons (unlike Kant) for their (later) philosophical styles; but this is not the place to go into the matter.
Having cleared the undergrowth, let me turn at last to the central point of disagreement. The point of my article was to show how certain aspects of Buddhist metaphysics may be understood better with the help of some modern developments in logic. The logical framework of early Buddhist thought is the catuṣkoṭi. This allows for four possibilities: true, false, both, and neither — unlike the two of Aristotle in the Metaphysics — or the three of De Interpretatione. But this framework makes perfectly good sense given the techniques of modern non-classical logic. The formal logic is highly relevant to understanding what is going on in Buddhist metaphysics. It certainly increases the clarity and precision of the views in question — true contradictions notwithstanding — in a way of which both Massimo and I approve.
My article was not about contradiction in general, however, but about a very particular one: the contradiction that arises when one tries to explain why there are certain things one cannot say anything about, hence saying something about them. One can make sense of even this contradiction using the techniques of modern logic. (The article shows how. I will not repeat it here.) This is an aporia one is faced with whenever one engages with the issue of the limits of language, as do not only Buddhist philosophers, but also Kant, Wittgenstein, et al. It even occurs in the heartland of contemporary logic and set theory. König’s paradox concerns a realm of objects (the ordinals) many of which cannot be referred to, and the fact that, at least prima facie, one can, nonetheless, say something about some of them. We are dealing with exactly the same phenomenon in both cases: the situation that arises when one tries to understand the limits of our language. If this is not obvious to superficial appearances, all I can say is, look beyond the superficial to the structure of the philosophical problematic here .
Is the application of techniques of modern logic to Buddhist philosophy anachronistic? Of course it is. But contemporary philosophers frequently apply the techniques of modern logic in trying to understand and analyze the views of their historical predecessors, as can be seen by looking at various commentaries on Plato, Ockham, Hume, Kant, et al. And quite rightly so: we have learned a lot about logic since they were writing. In virtue of this, we can, in a sense, understand the content of their views better than they did. This is certainly not to say that we are better philosophers. Time has just given us a better understanding of some matters than they had. In exactly the same way, we understand Euclidean geometry better now than did Euclid.
Let me draw together these comments. Massimo says at the start of his article:
- “My thesis is that the parallels that Graham sees between logic and Buddhist philosophy are more superficial than he understands them to be and,
- more importantly, that Buddhism as presented in his essay, is indeed a type of mysticism, not a philosophy, which means that logic (and consequently argumentation) are beside the point.
- Moreover, I will argue that even if the parallels run as deep as Graham maintains, Buddhism would still face the issue — fundamental to any philosophy — of whether what it says is true of the world or not,
- an issue that no mystical tradition is actually equipped to handle properly.”
My replies, in summary:
- Absolutely not: the techniques of contemporary logic can be applied with advantage to help understand most historical philosophers — East and West. And the aporia concerning the limits of language is important to both traditions.
- False. Buddhist philosophy is not mysticism. Argument and counter-argument are central to it. Appeal to mystical intuition — whatever that might be — is not.
- Agreed, but that was not the point of the essay.
- Maybe; maybe not. That, however, is beside the point here.
I have been a philosopher long enough to know that philosophers do not always see eye to eye, even after careful discussion. That, I think, is the nature of philosophy. But I hope that what I have said will have assuaged at least some of Massimo’s concerns. For the rest, I look forward to continuing discussions.
Graham Priest is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Boyce Gibson Professor Emeritus at the University of Melbourne. His latest books is One: Being an Investigation into the Unity of Reality and of its Parts, including the Singular Object which is Nothingness.
 Scientia Salon, 11 August 2014.
 Aeon, 5 May 2014.
 For three very different guides, one can try: M. Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy, Ashgate, 2007; A. Carpenter, Indian Buddhist Philosophy, Acumen, 2014; J. Garfield, Engaging Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 2014.
 I defend the matter at length in my Beyond the Limits of Thought, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2002.