True, False, Both, or Neither: Understanding Buddhist Metaphysics

Early Buddhist metaphysics — the philosophical tenets related to the nature of being and other intangible facets of existence — developed in response to catuskoti, or the “four-cornered” mode of argumentation in which a statement “can be true, false, both, or neither.” There are, in other words, four possibilities for any particular situation.

Western logic in contrast favors the principle of non-contradiction, or the idea that two contradictory statements cannot both be true. A statement can be either true or false, but there is no third possibility. But non-classical logic, which constructs logical truths through deviations and variations, offers a helpful frame to understand Buddhist metaphysics, according to Professor Graham Priest (The Graduate Center, CUNY).

Professor Graham Priest
Professor Graham Priest

Priest brings those two modes of thought — catuskoti and non-classical logic — together in his new book, The Fifth Corner of Four: An Essay on Buddhist Metaphysics and the Catuskoti. “The main aim of the book,” he writes, “is to show how some ideas drawn from Buddhist texts and some ideas in contemporary non-classical logic can profitably inform each other.”

The Fifth Corner begins by laying out a cursory history of Buddhism, including its Four Noble Truths, and the geographies in which it developed and underwent its most significant changes: India and Tibet, and China and Japan.

To examine how catuskoti has shifted over time, Priest turns to texts from the “second Buddha,” Nãgãrjuna, and the Japanese Buddhist monk, Dõgen. Through the works of both, Priest examines the duality of effability and ineffability. As he explains, achieving only one makes a person “one-sided.” Achieving both means achieving duality, but there’s a paradox inherent to that state, which represents the fifth corner he invokes in his title.

The Fifth Corner is meant to be an introduction rather than a comprehensive study of Buddhist metaphysics. “There is more to be said,” Priest writes near the end. “The rest is silence.”

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Bonus Content

"Four Corners—East and West" (Springer Link)
"Explaining the Self by Looking East" (The Graduate Center, CUNY)