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Interview with Graham Priest

by Seher Yekenkurul


Graham Priest is the Boyce Gibson Professor of Philosophy at Melbourne University, and Professorial Fellow at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Graham's research interests are in logic and related areas, such as metaphysics and the history of philosophy (East and West). He is the author of a number of books including: In Contradiction, Beyond the Limits of Thought, Towards Non-Being, Doubt Truth to be a Liar, and An Introduction to Non-Classical Logic.


Seher: Your contribution to logic, particularly through your work In Contradiction has been the centre of controversy since its first release. What is Dialetheism?

Graham: Dialetheism is the view that some contradictions are true. The reason why Dialetheism is controversial is because it has been a sort of tenet of Western philosophy, really since the time of Aristotle with the Law of noncontradiction, where a contradiction cannot possible be true. So many people found it outrageous when some people started to say that some contradictions can be true, which was about thirty years ago. By contradiction, I mean what logicians usually mean, namely things that form A and not A, such as the 'sun is shining and the sun is not shining', or 'we are in Melbourne and we are not in Melbourne'.

Seher: In your wonderful book, Beyond the Limits of Thought, you claim that the limits of thought are Dialetheic, thus subject to true contradictions. Could you explain your thesis on the boundaries of conceptual processes that you argue we can cross?

Graham: There is a phenomenon that occurs when you start to think about the limits of thought, or the limits of language, or similar sorts of things, but whenever you want to argue that there are things which are on the other side, which cannot be thought of, or cannot be described, you seem to force yourself to doing the impossible and actually say something or think about something on the other side. So, the thesis in Beyond the Limits of Thought is that there are certain kinds of limits, that there is something on the other side which you cannot think about or describe. The very process of passing that the boundary is Dialethic, you cannot cross it, but somehow you do. That is the contradiction.

Seher: You allege that the problem of Dialetheism is not a rational one, but rather a sociological one. Can you further explain what you mean by this?

Graham: There are actually very few arguments in favour of the Law of non-contradiction. The classic defence is Aristotle in the Metaphysics, and the arguments are pretty terrible, at the very least unclear. So, why then have people been attached to the Law of noncontradiction, when the only defence in the history of Western philosophy is so poor? Therefore, there must be a sociological explanation. Certain characters, because of their position in philosophy, acquire phenomenal value and Aristotle is certainly one of them. The mere fact that Aristotle said something, or Wittgenstein, or Derrida, or whoever, makes people think that it must be true, just because these are big names. I think something is happening like that in the Law of noncontradiction. Here is this sort of magnificent philosopher and no one has bothered to challenge him, so then it must be the case. As I tell you this, it does not seem very plausible, but I cannot think of a better explanation.

Seher: It reminds me of something Aristotle said: 'Conscious of their own ignorance, most people are impressed by anyone who pontificates and says something that is over their heads'.

Graham: Yes, but everything else Aristotle has said has been challenged in the last 2,000 years. Ok, so perhaps this is the last episode of that kind, the last thing that Aristotle said that has not been challenged.

Seher: You state Hegel, above all philosophers, was the first to recognise the Dialetheic limits of thought, although (observably) his obscure literary style may make it difficult for many to comprehend. Can you briefly explain the history of Dialetheism from Aristotle to Kant and Hegel?

Graham: In that period of time, the straight orthodoxy is that contradictions can't be true, end of story. There are a few people who play around with the idea that contradictions are not true, on the fringes of philosophy like Nicholas of Cusa who was a medieval theologian. But, generally speaking, no one takes the idea very seriously. Things change a little bit when you get to Kant, because he comes very close to supposing that they are. There is a part of his book, the Critique of Pure Reason where he mounts arguments for the contradictory views, and says, 'Hey, they're both good arguments'. So, it looks as though Kant is going to say, 'Yes, some contradictions are true,' though he pulls back at the last moment, diagnosing a kind of subtle fallacy for both arguments. Intellectually, his successor was Hegel, and Hegel endorses Kantian arguments and comes to think that some contradictions can be true. So, he is a big exception to the cynical orthodoxy of Western philosophy, the one big exception. Once he has found these contradictions, these contradictions start to play a centrepiece in his philosophy. Hegel thinks of the world as developing through a series of contradictions, and officially these are contradictions of the P and not P kind. So, there are certain times when you want to be able to think beyond the limits of what is possible, and you do it, and Hegel has a discussion of this kind of phenomenon.

Seher: In the beginning of In Contradiction, you wrote a small note, 'To the end of exploitation and oppression in all its forms and wherever it may be.' Do you think philosophers play an important role in society?

Graham: Yes, I do, although philosophers in the English-speaking countries are not terribly good at it. They tend to sit in ivory towers like the one we are sitting in now. They are not often engaged in social and political matters, I mean if they are social and political philosophers they are to a certain extent, but philosophers are rarely active in social and political issues. There are some noted exceptions like Peter Singer, but they are exceptions. But, I think philosophers have a great deal to offer, because if you look at the intelligent discussions on really important matters in the media, it is hopeless. Philosophers have the general ability to clarify things, show that certain arguments are bad arguments, show people aspects they probably were not aware of. There are a number of philosophers who can address an academic audience and a public audience and feel equally natural in doing both, and the skills in philosophy are very important to raise the tone of public discourse about really important things like wars, minority rights and terrorism.

Seher: You have personally addressed the problem of the Australian Governments' inadequate support of the Humanities, including philosophy. Can you tell me more about this problem?

Graham: I'm English, and I arrived in Australia almost thirty years ago. I think every year since I have arrived, things have been cut from University. So, it is not just the current government. Over that period of thirty years, it has been spending less on universities. The absolute amount of money may have gone up, but if you look at the number of students to teach now compared with thirty years ago the per capita funding has gone way down. Tertiary education is not a big priority in Australia; it is not like the UK and the US where it seems to be really important. The Australian government wants to get what benefits it can out of it, they want the doctors and the engineers and so on, and they don't want to pay much for it. I think that a lot of people in government, I think a lot of Australians generally, think that the Humanities are fairly useless.

Seher: Do you think that this problem is only an Australian one?

Graham: No. There is a similar phenomenon in the UK and a number of European countries, and especially the state universities in the US. Private universities in the US are quite different. The universities that depend on the government in some sort, where governments always want to do other things with their money, spend less in education. The real value of education is only going to come out thirty or forty years down the track, and the value of education within a person is something that lives with them for their whole life. So it is a long-term investment, and the governments are not really interested in the long-term investments, because, hey, they're not going to be around in thirty or forty years time, they're probably not going to be around after another election, so they are really interested in what is going to win the votes. The paradigm is global warming, everyone knows that it is going to happen and that it is going to be disastrous, but because it is a long-term issue that has to be addressed, no one is doing anything, having their eyes on the next election.

Seher: And the money.

Graham: And the money, although, it is going to cost them more in thirty to forty years time from now.

Seher: What do you think is the role of Philosophy at University?

Graham: Well, there are many interesting philosophical questions, and part of the importance of philosophy is just pursuing those questions. Having said that, I don't think that is the main value of having a philosophical education at University. I really think that the most lasting thing anyone gets out of a philosophical education is the ability to think for themselves and the tools to help them do that. Now, I know that many humanities disciplines claim the same, but I really think that this is something very distinct about philosophy. I do not deny that you've got to think critically if you are a historian or a political scientist, but one of the things about philosophy is that it really is a critical discipline, and anything that anyone says is held up for deep scrutiny. Philosophers are not put-off at being criticised, because that is the life blood of philosophy. I don't think this happens so much in politics and history, I mean if you criticise someone in one of these contexts, you would appear to being rather rude to the speaker, but this is what philosophy is all about and there is hardly ever any animosity. It is very common, for example, for people to argue quite heatedly for half an hour, and then go down to the pub and have a drink. So, the disagreement is actually at an intellectual level, rather than on a personal level.

Seher: You have personally reached 3rd Dan in Shito-Ryu, which is an excellent accomplishment. Why were you attracted to Karate-Do?

Graham: Many years ago, I had a teenage daughter who was twelve at the time, and my wife and I decided it would be a good idea for her to learn to defend herself. So, we thought, ok, there is a karate club in the locale. She was not particularly a physical kid and she needed a bit of motivation, part of her motivation was her mother, and I later went along and thought we can all do this together. She did not last, and practiced for a couple of years and gave it away, but I discovered that I really loved this. I didn't really want to go along in the first place, because I didn't see anything attractive about punching people; I mean that is what you are trained to do in martial arts. My wife, well ex-wife now, said to me, 'No, you don't understand, it is not about hitting people. It is about not hitting people.' Well, that sounded really daft to me, but she was dead right. Certainly you practice techniques that are going to hurt people, if ever carried out, but the whole point of the training is not to carry them out. A sort of paradox, you learn to do all these things you hope you never have to do.

Seher: At the Philosophy and the Martial Arts conference held this weekend, you will be speaking about the important relationship between Buddhism and the Martial Arts. Can you give us an overview?

Graham: I could, if I knew what I was going to say! One thing that intrigues me is this connection between the Martial Arts - as a sort of physical and mental practice - and the spiritual side. I think a lot of that is due to Buddhism. So, what I want to do tomorrow is talk about the sorts of relationships I see between Buddhism and the Martial Arts, because I think both have an effect on the other. I mean, it's no coincidence that Shaolin Kung-fu is said to have been invented by the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism. I think that the exercises were designed not just to make you fitter; let me put it in this way, you do not have to sit down and close your eyes to meditate, there are forms of meditation that occur in Martial Arts. I think that some exercises in Martial Arts, when repeated, form that function.

Seher: Most people see the study of logic as painful and complicated. Do you have any advice to give to students of philosophy?

Graham: Not everyone likes doing philosophy, because not everyone likes to think for themselves. There is a nice line from Bertrand Russell when he says, 'Some people would rather die than think for themselves,' and they often do! I think training in philosophy is really useful, and if you really don't enjoy thinking for yourself then I don't think you are going to get much out of doing it. But, if you are sort of independent minded, then I think that philosophy is the kind of thing for you. I don't think that person needs much encouragement. Logic is very different, partly because you've got to have an unusual combination of skills, such as some mathematical skills. For that reason, it is going to be of minor interest, and if you try it and find that you just don't like it, I would give it away very quickly.

Seher: Finally, who is you favourite philosopher, and why?

Graham: Oh! I don't think I have a favourite philosopher. There are so many great philosophers. When I was young, really before I took up philosophy, I read Bertrand Russell. He has such a great style, and he was a mathematician and so that appealed to me. He saw philosophy very much like how I do; well for a start philosophy is not divorced from the rest of life. Let me put it in this way, Russell wrote two kinds of books. He wrote some strongly academic books, and he wrote what he called 'pot boilers', the things for the general public he used to make money. And, when he writes on the pot boilers, things on happiness or Christianity or politics, there is a whole string of these things, he writes it simply and he is always critical and likes to show his readers how silly some ideas really are. I've always liked that. He just seems to have such plain common sense. So, he certainly had a big influence on me. There are so many great philosophers, and they are all completely mad.

Seher: Yes, and you just love that!

Graham: I love that, how ideas are just completely mad, yet have a kind of depth. Doesn't matter whether it is Plato, or Kant, or Wittgenstein or whatever, there is something intriguing about their ideas. The mark of a very great philosopher, I think, is that generation after generation goes back and re-reads Plato or Kant or Wittgenstein, and every generation finds something new in the text, because the idea is just so rich.

Seher: Thank you, Graham.

© Seher Yekenkurul 2006

E-mail: s3yekenkurul@students.latrobe.edu.au