All for the Sake of an Experiment, Research Time, 08/04/2014

I returned to my Facebook account last night to find a wonderful comment by my friend D: “If these were shorter, I’d read every one.” With this in mind, just a few short reflections. And they actually will be short this time.

I didn’t get many chances to visit Dr Arthur’s seminar on Graham Priest at McMaster this semester, even though I wanted to attend more often. But I got to the last session yesterday, and it was a wonderful class to take part in. If you remember my various discussions of Priest’s book, Beyond the Limits of Thought when I was reading it last semester, I have a very positive attitude toward his general philosophy, though I have some criticisms of his particular inquiries.

The fascinating and contrarian Graham Priest.
A quick refresher for those who don’t want to follow the links. Graham Priest is a logician who has developed dialetheic logic, a form of symbolic logic that allows for the truth of some contradictions. Beyond the Limits of Thought is a survey of huge swaths of the history of Western philosophy for examples of such true contradictions. Priest’s mission statement is that one kind of true contradiction is the attempt to think the limit of thought. It isn’t that tough to conceive: try to think what cannot be thought, or say what cannot be said. Every time we attempt to think through the limits of human language and thought, we always have to straddle this weird borderline position where we can actually articulate what kind of thing would lie outside the limit. So we delineate a limit of thought by being able to point just beyond it. And in pointing, we think what we’ve just declared unthinkable.

It’s a trippy concept, and I quite enjoy it. One point we discussed in the last class, however, was precisely what was the upshot of true contradictions existing other than simply marvelling or meditating upon them. After all, progress in thought often arises from thinking through contradictions that arise in thinking and trying to resolve them. But even if you accept a contradiction as true, its structure is usually remarkably complex. If the limits of thought are any indication, when a true contradiction arises, it already results from an amazingly complicated philosophical investigation. Discovering a true contradiction would, for me, add a further dynamic tension to an already-roiling conceptual mix. 

I’d be comfortable with that, but I fully understand that I’m not like most people. Whether or not you agree that true contradictions are possible, at the very least, Priest's work constitutes a complicated and remarkable philosophical experiment that can push the discipline into strange new directions. It's at least worth testing thought's limits in case it turns out we can step beyond them.

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