It is India in the fifth century BCE, the age of the historical Buddha, and a rather peculiar principle of reasoning appears to be in general use. This principle is called the catuskoti, meaning ‘four corners’. It insists that there are four possibilities regarding any statement: it might be true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false.
We know that the catuskoti was in the air because of certain questions that people asked the Buddha, in exchanges that come down to us in the sutras. Questions such as: what happens to enlightened people after they die? It was commonly assumed that an unenlightened person would keep being reborn, but the whole point of enlightenment was to get out of this vicious circle. And then what? Did you exist, not, both or neither? The Buddha’s disciples clearly expected him to endorse one and only one of these possibilities. This, it appears, was just how people thought.
At around the same time, 5,000km to the west in Ancient Athens, Aristotle was laying the foundations of Western logic along very different lines. Among his innovations were two singularly important rules. One of them was the Principle of Excluded Middle (PEM), which says that every claim must be either true or false with no other options (the Latin name for this rule, tertium non datur, means literally ‘a third is not given’). The other rule was the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC): nothing can be both true and false at the same time.
Writing in his Metaphysics, Aristotle defended both of these principles against transgressors such as Heraklitus (nicknamed ‘the Obscure’). Unfortunately, Aristotle’s own arguments are somewhat tortured – to put it mildly – and modern scholars find it difficult even to say what they are supposed to be. Yet Aristotle succeeded in locking the PEM and the PNC into Western orthodoxy, where they have remained ever since. Only a few intrepid spirits, most notably G W F Hegel in the 19th century, ever thought to challenge them. And now many of Aristotle’s intellectual descendants find it very difficult to imagine life without them.
That is why Western thinkers – even those sympathetic to Buddhist thought – have struggled to grasp how something such as the catuskoti might be possible. Never mind a third not being given, here was a fourth – and that fourth was itself a contradiction. How to make sense of that?