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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. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in lamenting the reliance of religious studies on the concept of belief, claims that on a classical or even medieval Western understanding ejusne philosophia vera est? would mean not “does he hold a correct set of philosophical beliefs?” but “Is his love of wisdom genuine?” Only in this kind of light, I think, can we understand more recent claims like Gandhi’s frequently expressed opinion that “Truth is God.” On the account that truth is borne only by propositions or other linguistic formation, such a claim appears ludicrous; whatever else God might be, he is not merely an attribute of statements or beliefs! So too in Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta philosophy, language is explicitly deconstructed and shown to be inadequate in the face of a truth that is beyond language.

And in Hegel’s case, the contradictions are there in social reality. MacIntyre in Whose Justice, Which Rationality? (pp. 362-6) gets at this point when he employs the notion of an epistemological crisis: traditions are superseded by other traditions when their worldviews and social practices are contradictory in ways the traditions cannot themselves resolve. Hegel adds a telos to MacIntyre’s view: it is just such crises that cause the world’s spirit to develop and progress.

In Hegel’s case, one could argue that the contradictions remain within the mind and even within language, because for Hegel a linguistic mind or spirit effectively constitutes reality. One cannot make this case with Hegel’s disciple Karl Marx. For Marx the fundamental contradiction of capitalism is that production is appropriated by a group that does not itself produce. This is a contradiction in reality that must necessarily work itself out. Mao tried to develop the point further in his On Contradiction.

Augustine, Gandhi, Śaṅkara, Marx, Mao and probably Hegel: not a group that has a whole lot in common. What they do share, it seems to me, is a conception that truth and contradiction extend well beyond mere propositions in individual minds. This conception tends to be dismissed in most contemporary philosophy (especially but not only analytic philosophy); but I suspect that in at least some respect it is probably right.