What is the Nyāyasūtra about?

I will be not the first one who notes that the list of padārtha ‘categories’ at the beginning of the Nyāyasūtra is somehow strange.

Let me, therefore, repeat it here (the padārthas have been emphasised):

pramāṇaprameyasaṃśayaprayojanadṛṣṭāntasiddhāntāvayavatarka-nirṇayavādajalpavitaṇḍāhetvābhāsacchalajātinigrahasthānānāṃ tattvajñānān niḥśreyasādhigamaḥ

(the translation is purely indicative:)

The summum bonum is achieved through the knowledge of the reality of means of knowledge, objects of knowledge, doubt, purpose [of one’s investigation], example, conclusive view, parts [of the syllogism], reasoning, ascertainment, discussion [aiming at the establishment of truth], agonistic debate, sophistry, pseudo logical reasons, deceit, futile answer and points of defeat.

A first problem regards the fact that the first two items seem to already include the rest of the list, so that one does not really understand why others are separately listed. My usual attitude is to give credit to a text and try to make sense of it, but in this case, let us look at it through the eyes of a thought-provoking Indian philosopher, Daya Krishna, who wrote:

We have two different types of topics which have been discussed and enumerated as pramāṇa, prameya, saṃśaya, prayojana, dṛṣṭānta, siddhānta, avayava, tarka, nirṇaya on the one hand and vāda, jalpa, vitaṇḍā, hetvābhāsa, chala, jāti and nigrahasthāna on the other. The latter obviously relate to discussion and argument between persons while the former seem to be more internatl to the nature of the argument itself. The latter therefore have psychological elements intermixed with other things while the former seem to be more logical in character. (2004, p. 61)

The ‘extensional’ enumeration of the subject-matter of the Nyāya-sūtras, thus, is an amalgamation of two different discourses, the one relating to the forms of argumentation between different persons debating a point and winning or losing in the argument, and the other relating to the theory of proof of justification. The mixing of these different discourses in the first sūtra is a sign of a basic confusion in the mind of Gautama, the supposed author of the Nyāya-sūtra. (pp. 48–49).

Now, Daya Krishna is a philosopher and his words about the Nyāyasūtra should tell us more about his own philosophical position than about Nyāya itself. Nonetheless, the point seems to me, in this case, worth further reflection.

Cross-posted on my personal blog.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

9 Replies to “What is the Nyāyasūtra about?”

  1. Hi Elisa. Good stuff.

    Of course, Vatsyayana himself notes your point about the overlap in his introductory comments, saying that the other categories could all be “prameya”, but they are still separately noted because of their importance to the core concerns of Nyaya, which included critical inquiry and the use of both pramanas and the normative standards of dialectical engagement to explore disputed issues.

    In our own experience, we know that we sometimes call attention to specific categories that may overlap with others because of special reasons. I tell my daughter that for a snack she can have fruit, including apples (her favorite!), or crackers, or cookies.

    Yes, the 16 topics seem unwieldy, but they are coherent. I schematize them topics as follows (with all the caveats that one needs to state in doing so).

    1. Epistemology (1)
    2. Metaphysics (2)
    3. Elements of inquiry (3-9)
    4. Debate theory (10-16)

    Re: Dayaji’s point, it seems that he is imputing a distinction that wasn’t there yet in the older texts, where the individual or communal “search for knowledge” and aggressive debate between rival thinkers or schools isn’t really separate. Hence the discomfort of the commentators over the sutra’s contention that jalpa and vitanda are ok to use to defend the truth from the bad guys. (Hugh Nicholson has a good article on this).

    (No diacritics on this computer, sorry)

    It’s hard to imagine that hetvAbhAsa is merely an issue in adversarial debate. Many clearly plague our common use of inference.

  2. “In this course, we will cover Critical Thinking, Logic, Syllogisms, Formal Fallacies, Informal Fallacies, and Induction.”

    It’s the introduction to a textbook: sure some of the categories overlap, but for pedagogic reasons, this is how they’re going to be laid out for you.

  3. A great post to ponder over. Indeed, as Matthew mentions, Vatsyanana notes this objection and agrees with it saying:

    तत्र संशयादीनां पृथग्वचनमनर्थकम् । संशयादयो यथासम्भवं प्रमाणेषु प्रमेयेषु वान्तर्भवन्तो न व्यतिरिच्यन्त इति । सत्यमेतत् इमास्तु चतस्रो विद्याः पृतक् प्रस्थानाः प्राणभृतामनुग्रहायोपदिश्यन्ते यासां चतुर्थीयमान्वीक्षिकी न्यायविद्या । तस्याः पृथक् प्रस्थानाः संशयादयः पदर्थाः । तेषां पृथग्वचनमन्तरेणाध्यात्मविद्यामात्रमियं स्यात् यथोपनिषदः। तस्मात् संशयादिभिः पदार्थः पृथक् प्रस्थाप्यते ।
    (Nyayadarsanam, pg. 34-5, edited by T. Nyaya-Tarkatirtha).

    This causes Uddyotakara to say similar things (Ibid. 35-6).

    The post raises fundamental questions of how to make sense of texts. Elisa’s post calls to my mind Quinten Skinner’s concern over the mythology of coherence: an approach by intellectual historians that discounts statements in texts that impair a coherence to that text or arguments in that text; or posits that no contradictions actually exist in an author’s argument. (Visions of Politics, vol 1, pp. 67-72)

    In light of Skinner, I might take a small exception to Matthew’s point that this list is coherent. Perhaps the point worth emphasizing is its incoherency (if we take coherent to mean orderly and logical). Indeed, I think what we see here by Vatsyanana and others is an admission that this list is actually not coherent and is unwiedly. But, the list must be presented in this way in order to distinguish nyaya, or anvikshiki, from atma-vidya.

    Questions that might arise from viewing the list in this way are: Why does the NS presents a list that is admittedly overlaping and non-coherent? What might the presentation of a incoherent list tell us about what the editors or redactors of this text were doing via this sutra?

    In this way, we do not try to downplay the ‘strangeness’ of the list but work its strangeness into the project of nyaya authors during this early period.

    • @Carl and @Shombhunath, you are surely right, thanks for pointing it out. @Shombhunath, I especially like in your comment the idea that this “irregularity” means that the NS lets us get a glance of what was important for its author and is in this sense precious for our hermeneutical work.

      @Matthew, thanks for highlighting that our perspective of what makes a discipline different than another is historically determined. You might be right, but I still feel some roughness in the juxtaposition of, e.g., pramāṇa, hetvābhāsa and soteriology.

  4. Please note that in my previous post above ‘Vatsyanana’ should be read as Vatsyayana–apologies for the typo.

  5. The first sutra quoted here is not complete. The most important part and the reason for which nyaya is used is: तत्तवज्ञानानि:श्रेयसाधिगम: (I could not type half n, so the spelling is slightly wrong).

      • Dear Elisa,

        Now it seems complete. The last words that are not in bold type were missing. At least that is how I saw them the last time I visited this page.

        The last three are important because in Nyaya philosophy, logic should also help us realise final liberation. Logic should not be used merely to argue endlessly.

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