Explaining the Self by Looking East

April 23, 2019

Buddhist metaphysics presents paradoxical arguments compared to Western philosophy. Professor Graham Priest explores in his new book.

Graham-Brooklyn-Bridge black and white

Distinguished Professor Graham Priest
Language operates as a system for communication, but are there certain experiences that it can’t encompass? “In philosophy, one of the big questions is about the limits of language,” says Graduate Center Distinguished Professor Graham Priest (Philosophy) “Does the use of language have limits? Are there things into which language cannot go?”
Western philosophers like Kant and Wittgenstein have explored that dilemma, but reaching a conclusion is another matter entirely. “If you start to think about why language has limits, you’re in a problematic situation, because even to describe why things are beyond the limits of language, you have to talk about them,” says Priest.
Within the Asian traditions, like Buddhist philosophy, that dilemma still exists. “There’s a kind of grand reality about which you cannot speak,” Priest explains, but the central difference is that Buddhism is more comfortable with that contradiction. Buddhist metaphysics — the study of the nature of being — arose, in part, through the catuskoti, or an argumentative form that includes four possibilities in which a given statement can be true, false, both, or neither. “Because they have the ‘both’ bit, they can accommodate this possibility much more easily,” Priest says.
The idea that something can be both doesn’t resolve itself within Western philosophy. “In logic, as it’s developed in the West, there are these two principles, which are pretty orthodox,” he explains. “The one is called the law of excluded middle, which says that any claim you make is either true or false, and the law of non-contradiction says, ‘Hey, and it can’t be both.’”


Priest’s new book, The Fifth Corner of Four: An Essay on Buddhist Metaphysics and the Catuskoti, examines the Eastern philosophy’s “four-cornered” argumentative form as it applies to myriad Buddhist traditions, and their respective stances on existence, enlightenment, and the nature of the self.
Priest also spends a great deal of the book examining one central paradox: the ineffable. “Describing the ineffable is a very particular kind of contradiction and it’s also one that seems to go beyond the catuskoti,” he says. “There’s no space in the catuskoti itself for the ineffable.” Around the second century in India, Priest says, a fifth possibility emerges, which is the “fifth corner” he references in his title. Suddenly, something exists that can be “truth, false, both, neither, and then ineffable.”
Priest has been studying philosophy for many decades now, working predominantly in the Western tradition. “I didn’t know anything about the Asian traditions,” he admits. “I wasn’t against them; I just didn’t know anything about them.” But a conversation with someone who knew a great deal quickly opened his eyes. “For 20 years, I’ve been trying to teach myself, and of the Asian traditions, I find the Buddhist one most interesting, maybe because that’s the Asian tradition I have the most sympathy with,” he says.
But studying Eastern philosophy doesn’t mean he’s lost an interest in Western philosophy. “Learning about half the world’s philosophy made the picture so much richer,” he says.