Teaching the Tarkasaṃgraha to first-year students

What follows is a reflection on my experiences teaching the Tarkasaṃgraha, as I promised in the comments to a recent post. Part of my job at Yale-NUS College is to teach a college-wide common curriculum course that spans two semesters. It’s called “Philosophy and Political Thought” (PPT). The course introduces students to three intellectual traditions categorized roughly by geography: Chinese, Indian, and Greco-Roman-Western thought. (While demarcating these boundaries is contentious stuff, for the purposes of teaching, we do have to mark boundaries somewhere.) The current semester begins with Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra and ends with Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture.”

Teaching the Tarkasaṃgraha: How and Why

Two weeks ago, before spring break, our students read the “inference” chapter (anumānapariccheda) of the Tarkasaṃgraha (Primer on [objects of] Reasoning), along with a few selections from his Dīpikā on the text. Why this text? Well, for one thing, part of what we want our students to consider in this course is how to reason well, and the Primer’s discussion of anumāna gives them a framework to think about when claims are justified, what to do in the face of a counter-argument, and so on. They also were introduced to epistemology with selections from Descartes’ Meditations, and the Primer is a nice way to challenge some dichotomies they might think are neatly carved out there–between empiricism and rationalism, for instance. It also uses doubt in a different way, as a spur for reasoning, and as a possible defeater, but at local, not global level.

As I have done for introductory-level classes the last few years, I put a selection of the text on Classroom Salon for students to annotate. We focused on the opening part of the chapter, which distinguishes between svārthānumāna and parārthānumāna, and addresses the pūrvapakṣin‘s worries about vyāpti, or regular concomitance. Having just been exposed to Descartes, they were quite worried that we could ever have certain knowledge of the relationship between smoke and fire, for instance. The result of their discussion online and in class was that we were able to talk about what bhūyodarśana (“abundant experience”) is, and why the Naiyāyikas might begin there, rather than with the sort of project Descartes has in mind.

Further, while the pedagogical focus was not explicitly what Anand Vaidya calls “the character view,” in my opening lecture, I gave the students some context about debate culture and the burgeoning cosmopolitanism in Annaṃbhaṭṭa’s time (for which see Ganeri’s The Lost Age of Reason). The goal was for students to see connections between their PPT course and its multiple textual traditions as well as their contemporary position in an increasingly global world. We could then talk about the role of the examples in parārthānumāna and what kinds of inferences are compelling and why. The biggest challenge for them was to see that, now that they had all experienced arguments for and against certain beliefs, they were in a tricky epistemic spot, given the fallacy known as “`counter-argument.” Can they claim that they know that the self exists, for instance? As we move in the course to focusing on the skill of formulating good objections and responses, my hope is that they will be more sensitive to the virtues of argumentation.

Challenges of Teaching

One of the topics we’ve talked about on this blog is the challenge of introducing Indian philosophy into the default “Western philosophy” courses. I’m in a special situation at Yale-NUS, where this course is, by design, incorporating multiple traditions, and it is team-taught. Yet there are still similar obstacles as in any other institution. My peers are generally experts in areas other than Indian philosophy (save for Amber Carpenter and Gavin Flood–not on this year’s teaching team) and when introducing a new text, they do not have time to get up to date on the secondary literature on Nyāya. This means it is my job to teach other philosophers Nyāya epistemology in a way which (1) enables them to feel competent teaching the text and (2) is philosophically robust enough to satisfy their own questions. This process (which I have also had to do for the Gīta-bhāṣya-s of Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja, and Uddyotakara and Vatsyāyana’s commentaries on the Nyāya-sūtra) has been humbling and eye-opening. While I’m in no position yet to be writing textbooks for introductory courses, I have a better sense of what such resources might need to do for non-specialists wanting to teach.

There are two major difficulties these kinds of books need to surmount. First is the well-known problem of “Sanskritese” translations. I adapted G. Bhattacharya’s translation (Calcutta: Progressive Publishers, 1976), along with V.N. Jha’s (Kerala: Chinmaya International Foundation Shodha Sansthan, 2010), with reference to some Sanskrit editions, in order to put together something a bit more readable and accurate (no reference to “middle” and “major terms”, for instance). However, there are still spots which could be clarified–which my colleagues helped me see, as they are unfamiliar with the kinds of locutions common in these translations. Second, there are questions that philosophers not trained in Indian philosophy will naturally ask which need to be answered or reframed. So, in teaching anumāna, how deeply should one get into the debates over its monoticity, its purportedly hybrid inductive/deductive character, on the ways in which it can be represented formally? (That isn’t to say these aren’t questions that those of us trained in Indian philosophy ask–we do–but we may not ask them at the same places, or find them obstacles in the same way.) These questions are bound to arise, and something needs to be said, even if it is only to remind the reader of the limitations of certain categories.

Finally, a difficulty that the students seem to have with Indian philosophy and not so much with Chinese philosophy, is the successful employment of these concepts in a modern context. While they (generally speaking) do not fault Zhu Xi’s metaphysics of Pattern and qi for being out of step with the deliverances of science, this is a worry for Indian philosophers. I think this is in part because Indian philosophy reads in a way that is more “technical” than Chinese philosophy (whether such a difference exists is a further question). Second, the claims are more immediately comparable for introductory students. It’s hard to know how to determine whether Pattern and qi are consistent with what first-year college students think of as “science”, but they can come up with objections to claims about earthiness being characterized by the property of having odor. For this reason, I’ve been focusing on motivating the metaphysics behind the Nyāya examples–emphasizing the way in which categories map onto sense modalities. And second, I’ve been challenging them to come up with their own examples using Annaṃbhaṭṭa’s structure. In this way, they could see that the scientific method of hypothesizing about cause-and effect is not so far off as they originally thought (I had one set of students construct a kevala-vyatireka or “negative-only” inference using mercury instead of earth!).

All in all, the feedback (so far) from my colleagues has been that the text was at the right level of challenge for the students. It was difficult, but not insurmountably so. One colleague had students construct the Nyāya-Bauddha debate using the inferential forms they learned–a good way for them to see in retrospect what was going on when they read Vasubandhu, Uddoytakara, et al. The text also lacked any explicitly religious elements, which I think was helpful for the students to see that Indian thought is not only religious, which is a sense they might get if they only read the Gīta, Buddhist texts, and Gandhi. So, for anyone looking to incorporate some Indian philosophy into an epistemology, intro, or logic course–try the Primer on Reasoning? It is, after all, written to be an introductory textbook.

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Humanities (Philosophy) at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

12 thoughts on “Teaching the Tarkasaṃgraha to first-year students

  1. Dear Malcolm
    Outstanding!! I can’t wait to try this in my course in the fall of 2016. And I will stick close what you say here in terms of navigating potential difficulties. I think I am going to go at it from some issues in critical thinking and the epistemology of awareness, belief formation, and self-understanding vs. dialectic for erotetic.

    If there are other texts I (or others) should be looking at please let us know. Stephen Phillips is speaking at the Pacific APA on Critical Thinking from the Nyaya Tradition for the Association for Critical Thinking and Informal Logic, and Purushottama Bilimoria is reading a set of comments on Phillips’s work written by me and him. I think that it will be good to incorporate some of the material that you have drawn attention to in my comments. Overall I think we (comparative philosophy community) are coming close to a first-pass contribution from Indian philosophy for critical thinking courses. And this is going to be big when we align it with contributions from Chinese traditions and Arabic traditions.

    Thanks so much for this information.!!!

  2. Anand, you’re welcome–and I am glad to hear about the Pacific APA–I wish I could be there, but alas, it’s a bit too far and right in the middle of the semester (I’ve done a lot of traveling already this year). I hope you write up something about the meeting here.

  3. Dear Malcolm Keating,
    Thank you for this useful post. While teaching some concepts of Nyaya, references to set theory come handy. The book ‘A Primer of Indian Logic’ by Kuppuswami Sastri is also helpful. Please continue sharing your experiences of teaching Nyaya.

    • Dear Swami Narasimhananda, yes Kuppuswami Sastri’s text and translation is a good one. I think it is even available online various places. There are so many translations of this text to choose from, which is a nice problem to have (http://faculty.washington.edu/kpotter/ckeyt/txt4.htm has a list).

      And for more advanced students, talking about set theory may be helpful, yes. In this context, I was trying to avoid incorporating such concepts–though, for instance, students had just learned about implication in another class and were asking questions prompted by that experience. (“Are the positive and negative examples contrapositives?”)

  4. Thank you, for sharing your teaching experience. At the moment I’m reading lectures in Vedic literature for the students who do not know Sanskrit and so I am looking how to demonstrate the structure of the hymns and the poethical means applied using Russian translations.
    Generally I am very sceptical about translations of philosophical texts and when I read Indian language philosophy for similar students, I usually explain, instead of letting the students to read on their own. But after having read your post, I begin to think about prepearing some translated passages, so that the students could come in touch with the modes of philosophical reasoning as expressed in the text. (Though there is an additional problem, as the number of translations – especially the good ones – in Russian is dramatically fewer, than in English).

    • Dear Evgeniya Desnitskaya,
      The structure of Russian seems to be closer to Sanskrit than English. If you could get the help of translations in any Indian language, French, Spanish, or German, you are most likely to get the closest meaning than from an English translation. If I may ask, what text(s) are you teaching?

  5. Many thanks for sharing, Malcolm, and congratulations for the concept of the class! (Thanks also to Anand, by the way: It is refreshing to hear some optimism now and again!)

    As for one of the problems you hint at, namely the conflict of Indian ontology with the post-scientific revolution worldview, I have had similar experiences. What *I* do is that I tend to avoid, as far as possible the ontological parts and focus instead on the epistemological ones, which do not overtly clash with scientific data. Then, once the students have given up the attitude “everything old is outdated” I try also the following two strategies:
    —Considering folk- and pre-scientific revolution theories about nature (more often than not, they resemble the kind of theories found in Classical Vaiśeṣika).
    —(only for advanced students) Questioning the “scientific” status of the so-called “scientific” discourse. We pause on the fact that what we think to be the “scientific” worldview resembles much more a “positivistic” worldview (i.e., a philosophical, rather than “scientific” position), whereas the actual natural sciences have long given up, for instance, naïve realism.

    • Elisa, yes, I think the last bullet point especially is a good one. I tried to motivate a modern connection in my lecture by talking about the current problem of the Zika virus and its link to microcephaly. It’s a case where there has got to be some upādhi-s (Zika doesn’t always cause microcephaly and it isn’t always a result of Zika). I had the students think a bit about how scientists use observations and formulate rules of regularity. I will think about how to draw connections to folk theories of nature, and see if that might be helpful for the next time!

      • Thank you, Malcolm. I also often use medicine to show that induction is not so outdated… (is there really ADHD syndrom? Does Prozac really cure it? Is AIDS the cause of a given symptom…?).

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