“When I started reading Derrida, I couldn’t understand what the heck he was talking about; but someone like Kripke, it was easy. I remember chatting to someone once who said to me ‘yeah, this Derrida guy is easy, but when I read Kripke I can’t understand a word he’s saying!’”Those are the words of Graham Priest (CUNY), who is well-known for his defense of dialetheism, the view that there are true contradictions. Interviewed at the Undergraduate Philosophy Journal of Australasia, he acknowledges and understands the typical reaction to dialetheism:
The principle of noncontradiction is so ingrained in philosophers — much, much more ingrained than any kind of naturalism. I mean, it’s been high orthodoxy in Western philosophy for something like 2500 years, and people found dialetheism crazy, almost literally. That’s why we got an enormous amount of pushback… I mean there are lots of wacky ideas out there in philosophy, and you can’t give serious credence to all of them. You’ve got to spend your time investigating those things that you think are more plausible, and if something strikes you as just plain wacky, then you’ve got better things to do in life than think about it. So I understand that.
One theme that emerges from the interview, perhaps naturally from a person familiar with his ideas being thought of as “plain wacky,” is the importance in philosophy of not dismissing the unfamiliar and strange.
The theme comes through when he discusses reading philosophy early in his career:
Coming at philosophy from mathematics, as I did, I read people like Frege and Russell and Carnap — and they have a certain way of writing philosophy. I felt very much at home with that. But then I discovered that there are lots of great philosophers who do not write like that. You know, The Critique of Pure Reason… let alone Aristotle, let alone Marx, let alone Asian philosophers like Nāgārjuna or Dōgen, or philosophers like Heidegger or Foucault. They just have a different way of writing. And that’s okay. There are many different ways of writing philosophy. But I found it very hard, at first, to engage with philosophers who wrote in a style that I wasn’t familiar with. And I wondered sometimes whether they were really good, because I couldn’t understand a word, or whether it was just me.
But over the years, I’ve come to see that there are many different good ways of writing philosophy. If you want to get to grips with what a philosopher is thinking, then you really have to tune into the way they express themselves, what they take for granted, the metaphors they use, the cultural assumptions, etcetera. And if it’s a good philosopher, it’s worth the effort. Of course, what you’re used to depends very much on what you’ve been exposed to when you’re learning philosophy. When I started reading Derrida, I couldn’t understand what the heck he was talking about; but someone like Kripke, it was easy. I remember chatting to someone once who said to me ‘yeah, this Derrida guy is easy, but when I read Kripke I can’t understand a word he’s saying!’ It just depends where you’re coming from. Don’t write-off philosophers just because they’re hard to read — you have to make an effort before you make a judgement!
The value of antidismissiveness is part of why in-person interactions in philosophy are important:
I’ve traveled a lot, over the years. And one reason I travel is this: if you write a paper on some bizarre topic that goes into a journal, people say, ‘oh, Jesus, this guy believes in contradictions. That’s wacky, I’m not going to read that’. It’s hard to say, ‘okay, I understand that reaction’. But if you are face to face with someone they cannot do that. They say, ‘oh, contradictions, you can’t believe that, that’s absurd’. And you say, ‘why?’ And then they can’t throw the journal away; they’ve got to answer. And what I found, over the years, is that when you put a philosopher on the spot like this, they find it very hard to come up with good reasons. I’m not saying there aren’t good reasons. But what discussion of this kind makes people realise is that dialetheism is not as crazy as it sounds. And even if it’s wrong, there is a really serious philosophical conversation to be had about this.
You can read the whole interview here.