Some Remarks on the Mode of Argumentation in Indian Philosophy

Sanskrit works on philosophy are full of arguments with rival schools. And there is one point in these arguments that seems a bit puzzling. It was quite natural, that one tried to dismiss the rival opinion. And of course the best way to do it, was to demonstrate the logical inconsistency of the opponent’s theory or the fallacies in his argumentation. Still it was not rare, that the real reason for the opponent to hold his opinion was not in the defects of his reasoning. Different schools discussed the same problem from different points of view, relying on different backgrounds.

E.g. the Vaiśeşikas claimed, there are two types of relation (samavāya and saMyoga), because they had to explain permanent ontological relations (e.g. of dravya and guņa) on the one hand and unstable relations (e.g. relations of the atoms) on the other. Semantic relation initially was not interesting for the Vaiśeşikas. But once they had to express their opinion on this subject, they claimed, semantic relation did not exist. The only reason for this claim was, that the existence of semantic relation did not fit their realist world-view.

Still the opponents of Vaiśeşika (Bhartŗhari, Dharmakīrti), while arguing on relation, never tried to understand the real reasons for postulating such views. They just used some of the Vaiśeşika’s statements extracted from the context, bringing them to regressus ad infinitum etc.

It seems to me, this mode of arguing dominated in Indian philosophy. Bhartŗhari sometimes tried to understand the reasons of his opponents to hold this or that opinion, but this was most probably because of the inclusivist tendency of Grammar (sarvapārşadaM hīdaM śāstram). Perhaps the Jain anekāntavāda was another exception of the rule.

And how do you experience the way Indian philosophers dealt with rival ideas?

17 Replies to “Some Remarks on the Mode of Argumentation in Indian Philosophy”

  1. Good point, Evgeniya. I think the view of the thinkers was that another position was only as good as the arguments it contained. As we know, they do tend to quote reasonably accurately the wording of those individual arguments, and seek to refute them. The idea that one ought to do a meta-level analysis of an opposed position, by asking /why/ that argument was given, would probably have seemed egregious to the tradition, I think. Perhaps it is because of an over-rigorous notion of what can be understood of another’s position: the /reasons/ why one may hold a position slide into tendencies, dispositions, inclinations, life-events and the like. So better to leave it to the person to express, within their arguments, the specific reasons for those arguments. If those are not thus contained, then they do not exist in the space of debate.

    • Ram, I was writing my comment while you were writing yours and I am hence reading it just now.
      Your point suits nicely with the (Mīmāṃsā influenced) approach to texts as not necessarily the product of someone’s intention, but as to be interpreted for their own sake (which is, by the way, a great contribution of Indian philosophy).

    • Thanks for this interesting post, Evgeniya.

      To follow up on Ram’s point, I wonder how much of this approach is fed by what tend to be more general attitudes or presuppositions amongst our thinkers, to the effect that actions have priority over agents (expressed expertly in Edwin Gerow’s paper “What is Action” :, or how much if it is merely methodological, perhaps tied to the tradition of debate in classical India, where positions are put forth, and once they are put forth, they are proper targets for refutation and discussion (though some nigrahasthanas have to do with failures of debaters, it is true).

      We know how common it is that purvapakshas are put forth without explicit mention of their proponents. Is that because it is assumed that everyone reading will know who it is, or because it doesn’t really matter who it is, the position is there, and that’s all that’s really important?

      • Thank you for the link, Matthew. The priority of actions over agents is a very plausible idea, especially for Buddhists and Bhartihari, though I am not sure, it matters in this context.
        Your second suggestion seems more probable, as in the course of the vAda those will win, who are more convincing in refuting the opponent’s arguments. And there is no space for comprehensive analysis of all hidden presuppositions.
        As for the lack of identifications in purvapakshas, it seems, both suggestions are justified. All popular ideas were known to possible readers. And on the other hand it could have been the author’s intention, to refute all possible arguments, even those, that he invented himself. The latter was the point with the chapters on Lokayata in doxographic works, because one, who denies anumana, will never spend time, justifying his own ideas.

    • Thank you for the comment, Ram, but in fact I didn’t mean such subjective occasions, like life-events of the philosopher. The more so, that we hardly know anything credible about the life of the major part of ancient thinkers. My point was, that certain ideas were stipulated by methodological approach of the school which the author belonged to. And treated separately, these ideas were interpreted inadequately. Probably it is the concept of the hermeneutic circle, that I miss in Indian philosophy)

  2. Evgeniya, this is a very stimulating post, thank you!
    A few questions and remarks:
    1) I am not sure whether I understand your last paragraph, since the mention of the anekāntavādins and of the idea of sarvapārṣadaṃ hīdaṃ śāstram seems to refer not to “dealing with rival theses while holding in view their raison d’etre”, but rather to “openness to other views”. If your last question regards the latter approach, I would agree with Matthew’s comment (here: and add Jayanta to the list.

    2) It seems to me that there are two, quite different, ways of “dealing with rival theories neglecting their raison d’etre”. In one case (the example you mention), one just extrapolates a view and criticises it mercilessly. I just met a similar instance in a text: DhK’s PV 2.211, which is a difficult verse bearing surely on one’s moral development (as one understands out of context), is quoted by Vācaspati (commentary on SK 64) and by Vedānta Deśika (commentary on PMS 1.1.5) as an evidence of a certain epistemological theory. In fact, the verse was not about epistemology —although it can be read in this way— and Vācaspati and V. Deśika just disregarded its original context in order to attack it better.
    On the other hand, there are cases in which one criticises a theory in itself —and rightly so, I believe. It might in fact be that, say, the apoha theory is ultimately rooted in the Buddhist negation of a permanent subject, but why should this latter point have a role to play in a linguistic discussion of the validity of apoha? It seems to me appropriate to discuss the theory in its own right.

    • Elisa,
      1) to my opinion, Bhartrihari’s ‘openness to different views’ was not a kind of ‘political correctness’, so that he was ready to accept every doctrine. Rather he regarded different views as equally possible methodological approaches to the problem, each based on certain presuppositions. And usually he tried to demonstrate, how one view can be accommodated with another one.
      2) Concerning apoha I’d rather say, that this is an excellent example of the theory, that cannot be discussed without its initial context. Because of the denial of the subject, Buddhists had no choice, but to elaborate this theory. At the same time, as Masaaki Hattori demonstrates in his paper ‘Apoha and Pratibha’ (Hattori, Masaaki. “Apoha and Pratibhā.” Sanskrit and Indian Studies. Springer Netherlands, 1980. 61-73.), Buddhist thinkers had problems explaining the psychological aspects of apoha, which resulted in their simultaneous use of the concept of pratibha, which they adopted from Bhartrihari.

  3. My exposure to Indian philosophy is exclusively via texts on logic and argumentation. In particular, I’ve been looking recently at Ratnakirti’s _Isvarasadhanadusanam_, which is interesting because it can be read not as a text about the existence of Isvara but rather about the scope of application of logic and argumentation forms.

    • You mean, Ratnakirti just illustrated some logical methods on the example of Ishvara-question? This seems similar to the way the author of Bhattikavya used the history of Rama to illustrate the rules of grammar.

      • Ratnakirti was definitely interested in illustrating that Nyaya proofs for God fail. But in the course of doing so, he ends up spending much time focusing on the nature of inferential cognition and the structure, and importantly, *limits* of inference.

  4. i agree that this is a very interesting topic. just two thoughts: first, sarvapārṣada really refers to the acceptance of knowledge-system, or of a cultural practice (bhoja famously says this of kāvya), by everyone that could possibly count. i’m not sure what this means about the “inclusivity” of such systems, but it’s interesting that they are implicitly contrasted with sectarian systems.

    second, i immediately think of one instance where kumārila discusses the reasons why his opponents hold the beliefs that they do: in the kalpasūtrādhikaraṇa he says that the buddhists are jealous, and they are simply appropriating for their own scriptures what mīmāṃsakas say of the vedas, failing to realize that it contradicts with their own basic beliefs. like a suitor who is asked his gotra by a girl’s parents and stupidly says, “why, it’s just the same as yours!” i’m sure such examples can be multiplied, even if they don’t really exemplify the kind of higher-order reflection on one’s philosophical committments that evgeniya asked about.

    • Interesting example, Andrew, but which Buddhists exactly did Kumarila mean?
      Probably there might be certain difference in cultural practices of classic schools and later doxographic period?

  5. I just read a NDPR review of Jon Stewart’s (the philosopher, not comedian) new book *The Unity of Content and Form in Philosophical Writing: The Perils of Conformity* which made me think more broadly about the question of genre and style in philosophical writing, not just about argumentative style, but literary style (here:

    Stewart calls attention to the fact that historically, philosophical writing takes on various forms according to the needs and concerns of the author. For example, Plato’s use of dialogue was a natural way of distinguishing himself, and his Socrates from the sophists and their lengthy discourses on various topics.

    It makes one wonder about our thinkers. For some, like Chandrakirti, we can see how style is tied to content, as his playful, challenging prose seems well suited for the Madhyamaka challenge to realism.

    What about our other authors? I think I understand why Naiyayikas would have an “analytic” sort of style, sticking to the arguments without much embellishment, and in the work of someone like Gangesha, even out chisholming Chisholm.

    But it is an interesting question of why some thinkers choose particular literary modalities to communicate (or rather conversely, whether they are too conservative, just sticking to what style is dominant even if it constrains them). Would it be safe to say that many of our thinkers just take the standard modalities of Indian philosophical communication to be a given, and work within that?

    • That’s an interesting point. As for Bhartrihari, his style undoubtedly correlates with the mode of his reasoning. He wanted to highlight the problem from different perspectives and doing this he avoided explicit expanded arguments, making instead a series of impressionistic sketches. This can be contrasted with Dharmakirti, who consistently hammered away at his opponent’s arguments.
      On the other hand it could be interesting to find examples of the thinkers, who could have introduced some stylistic innovations, but being conservative tried to express some new ideas with traditional style, that was inappropriate to them.

      • that’s an interesting and perhaps promising issue, Evgeniya and Matthew! Perhaps we should open a new thread about it (and check other people’s experience with it?). I for one, would say that Kumarila had no intrinsic reason to write in slokas (it was rather the way everyone did philosophy at his time), whereas form and content are much more significantly linked in the case of Venkatanatha.

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  7. If you would permit a small observation related to this interesting question: the lack of concordance between what the actually accepts, and how their tenets are represented in treatises that refute them is something well noticed by some of the traditional Tibetan scholars I have studied. The ‘solution’ that is sometimes offered to explain this discrepancy is the concept of ‘the point at which the tenet is refuted by reasoning’ (rigs pas ‘phul mtshams). The term seems relatively modern (dating from the 20th century). Presumably it means that in the context of a debate with an opponent, the debate takes it’s course, with the opponent being forced to accept various consequences from their original thesis. Finally, there will come a point (mtshams) when the reasoning (rigs pa) of the author of the treatise will clear away (‘phul) the opponent’s position. When the opponent’s positions are represented as this point in time, as opposed what the position was at the start, then it is called “rigs pas ‘phul mtshams”. Of course, the concept is open to abuse since it allows parodies of the opponent’s positions to be represented. Still, I think it shows that part of the problem may be related to the difficulty of representing philosophical debates in a treatise. A text written in verse may not have more than a brief summary of a debate, and even one in prose cannot represent the subtleties of a live debate where different positions are not obviously ‘incorrect’ but become less and less clear, and increasingly in danger of mistakes that lead to absurd consequences.

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