What do Augustine, Gandhi, Śaṅkara, Marx and Mao all have in common? Something quite important. But before answering this question, a brief excursus on Marx’s inspiration, G.W.F. Hegel.
In reading Graham Priest’s work, I was particularly struck by a point Priest makes at length in his Stanford Encyclopedia article: that Hegel believes there can be true contradictions, and is in that sense a dialetheist. I think Priest is technically right, but the point can be a bit misleading.
First, Hegel accepts the normative force of non-contradiction, in a way that Priest also does but tends to push to the sidelines. That is: while it’s possible for contradictions to be true, there’s also something about them that is epistemologically bad. As I noted last time, Priest accepts this point himself, so that when he says “What is so bad about contradictions? Maybe nothing,” he is effectively being disingenuous for rhetorical effect. For Priest, contradictions are epistemologically bad only in that the probability of a contradiction being true is generally low. For Hegel the problem with contradictions is something significantly bigger: a true contradiction eventually and inevitably becomes false.
This point leads into a bigger difference that goes well beyond Hegel’s and Priest’s work, which is what I really want to address today. Priest generally imagines contradictions as existing between linguistic truth-bearers of some description. He says at the beginning of the SEP entry that “we shall talk of sentences throughout this entry; but one could run the definition in terms of propositions, statements, or whatever one takes as her favourite truth-bearer: this would make little difference in the context.” But some objects taken to bear truth could, I think, change the nature of the claim significantly. Priest’s truth-bearers are statements, beliefs, propositions – all mere linguistic mental or verbal objects. But not everyone has taken truth-bearers to be of this kind. The most vivid exception may be Saint Augustine, about whom Alasdair MacIntyre put the matter beautifully:
for Augustine it is in terms of the relationships neither of statements nor of minds that truth is to be primarily characterized and understood. “Veritas,” a noun naming a substance, is a more fundamental expression than “verum,” an attribute of things, and the truth or falsity of statements is a tertiary matter. To speak truly is to speak of things as they really and truly are; and things really and truly are in virtue only of their relationship to veritas. So where Aristotle locates truth in the relationship of the mind to its objects, Augustine locates it in the source of the relationship of finite objects to that truth which is God. (Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, p. 110)
Here not merely statements or beliefs but things are true – by virtue, I think, of their genuineness, their closeness to a Platonic Form of goodness which, for Augustine, turns out to be God himself. Continue reading