New Article: “Pramāṇavāda and the Crisis of Skepticism in the Modern Public Sphere” by Amy Donahue

Readers of the Indian Philosophy Blog may be interested to learn about a new article in the latest issue of the Journal of World Philosophies: “Pramāṇavāda and the Crisis of Skepticism in the Modern Public Sphere” by Amy Donahue (Kennesaw State University). The journal is open-access, and you can download the article here.

Here’s the abstract:

There is widespread and warranted skepticism about the usefulness of inclusive and epistemically rigorous public debate in societies that are modeled on the Habermasian public sphere, and this skepticism challenges the democratic form of government worldwide. To address structural weaknesses of Habermasian public spheres, such as susceptibility to mass manipulation through “ready-to-think” messages and tendencies to privilege and subordinate perspectives arbitrarily, interdisciplinary scholars should attend to traditions of knowledge and public debate that are not rooted in western colonial/modern genealogies, such as the Sanskritic traditions of pramāṇavāda and vāda. Attention to vādapramāṇavāda, and other traditions like them can inspire new forms of social discussion, media, and digital humanities, which, in turn, can help to place trust in democracy on foundations that are more stable than mere (anxious) optimism.

I enjoyed reading the article, and I found it extremely thought-provoking. I hope readers of this blog will check it out. Also, be sure to look for the forthcoming online debate platform that Donahue mentions on p. 5! Maybe we’ll make an announcement on the blog when it’s ready. Or reach out to Dr. Donahue if you’re interested in collaborating.

Here are a few of my questions for further discussion:

  1. Since pramāṇavāda was an elite discourse in historical South Asian societies and it requires some educational training (as Donahue notes on p. 4 and p. 5), can it do the work Donahue asks it to do?
  2. Are jalpa and vitaṇḍā so bad? While most Naiyāyikas have denigrated them as illegitimate as Donahue notes (p. 6), a few have distinguished “tricky” and “honest” forms of vitaṇḍā (Matilal 1998, 3). And then there’s Śrī Harṣa’s debate at the beginning of the Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya with a Naiyāyika opponent about whether one must accept the means of knowledge (pramāṇas) in order to enter into a debate about the pramāṇas (he mentions that one understands the discourse of the Madhyamakas and Cārvākas, perhaps thinking of Nāgārjuna and Jayarāśi; I will have more to say about the Cārvākas in an upcoming conference presentation—see information below). Matilal has also argued that vitaṇḍā can make sense as resulting in a “commitmentless denial” similar to an “illocutionary negation” (Matilal 1998, 50-56). In terms of a modern public sphere, could vitaṇḍā be a useful tactic for, say, pointing out the inherent contradictions of various harmful dogmatisms? Or maybe the deepest benefit of the vāda-jalpa-vitaṇḍā framework is a bit of self-awareness about which form of debate one is using?
  3. Is vāda necessarily more prone to discrediting false beliefs than a Habermasian public sphere or the type of marketplace of ideas in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty? (p. 11) My point is most definitely not that we have nothing to learn from Indian logic and debate. Far from it! But I wonder how effective vāda can be. After all, you don’t find much philosophical agreement in the classical Indian tradition, which is precisely why I find it so interesting!
  4. Is the archive (p. 12) essentially part of vāda, or is it a cultural artifact of the Indian and Tibetan tradition of commentaries? Was there something similar in Hellenistic, Roman, Islamic, and Byzantine traditions, which were also heavily commentarial?

My questions here are meant to be taken in the spirit of vāda to keep the conversation going. I hope others will read Donahue’s thought-provoking article and join this worthwhile conversation.

Also, if you will be attending the upcoming Central APA Conference in Denver, Colorado, USA on Feb. 22, 2023, you will have the chance to discuss these and other issues in person! 

Wed. Feb. 22, 2023, 1-4pm

2022 Invited Symposium: Vāda: Indian Logic and Public Debate 

Chair: Jarrod Brown (Berea College)


Amy Donahue (Kennesaw State University) “Vāda Project: A Non-Centric Method for Countering Disinformation”

Arindam Chakrabarti (University of Hawai’i at Manoa) “Does the Question Arise? Questioning the Meaning of Questions and the Definability of Doubt”

Ethan Mills (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga)  “Cārvāka Skepticism about Inference: Historical and Contemporary Examples” 

(More information about the conference here, including a draft program that includes several other panels on Indian philosophy.)

Works Cited

Donahue, Amy. 2022. “Pramāṇavāda and the Crisis of Skepticism in the Public Sphere.” Journal of World Philosophies 7 (Winter 2022): 1-14.

Matilal, Bimal Krishna.  1998.  The Character of Logic in India.  Edited by Jonardon Ganeri and Heeraman Tiwari.  Albany: SUNY Press.

10 Replies to “New Article: “Pramāṇavāda and the Crisis of Skepticism in the Modern Public Sphere” by Amy Donahue”

  1. This does indeed look interesting, Ethan, and your comments here are of course helpful if not provocative. Setting aside the conference itself, I have but one comment with regard to the reference to “societies that are modeled on the Habermasian public sphere.” Alas, I do not think there is such a thing, at least not in the normative and ideal sense that appears to be at work in the argument. However, there are, more or less Liberal democratic societies and here is where relying on Rawls’s discussion of “public reason” and the notion of a possible “overlapping consensus” (Samuel Freeman: ‘at its simplest means that people in a well-ordered society will normally act in conformity with reasonably just laws and will endorse a liberal conception of justice for the many different reasons that stem from their conceptions of the good,’ conceptions derived more or less from their worldviews and lifeworlds; what Rawls refers to as ‘comprehensive doctrines’ of ‘the Good’) strikes me as more relevant, pressing and empirically informed than the more abstract and idealized notion of an Habermasian public sphere. Perhaps more specific Rawlsian concerns and sensibilities might become a topic in light of Indian modes of argumentation and reasoning (thus closer to, say, the public reasoning orientation found in the writings of Amartya Sen, for example). Finally, I am curious as to the extent notions of “rhetoric” might be any part of this discussion.

    • Hi Patrick,

      Could you please clarify what you intend by “the normative and ideal sense that appears to be at work in the argument?” The article acknowledges that “no such open and disciplined public sphere has existed in societies that imagine themselves as democracies” (2), and instead borrows from Seyla Benhabib’s reading of the Habermasian public sphere as a regulative ideal and constitutive fiction of the democratic form of government.
      Thanks and all best wishes,

      • Amy,
        I was referring largely to Habermas, but I am not sure Benhabib has abandoned the “ideal” part. I was relying on the abstract here and have only skimmed the article which I hope to read carefully at a later date (So I was not criticizing anything from the article itself only speaking to that quote.) I have been reading the literature on rhetoric in democracies and there are some telling criticisms of deliberative democratic conceptions of argument, dialogue, etc. which I find largely convincing. (Some of that critique goes back to Jon Elster.) If you have not already, you might want to take a look at that.

  2. I’m looking forward to reading the article! I’d mention two other challenges in adopting vāda and so on to the modern context, which perhaps Amy discusses.

    First, being a debater for the truth involves training in virtues and attention. Vācaspati and Jayanta Bhaṭṭa both talks vāda as being vītarāgakathā, a kind of discourse for those who are dispassionate. It isn’t simply a formal method, but (I think) requires certain virtues on the part of the participants. This may inform things like interpretation of an opponent’s speech in the best light.

    Second, for contexts where policies are at stake, it is difficult to see how the debate could remain purely vāda. I often wonder if that is part of Jayanta’s point in his play, the Āgamaḍaṃbara. (The Nyāya speaker gives a monologue at the end, curiously, and does not engage in vāda, and in the act where everyone initially “agrees” to vāda, it deteriorates into jalpa.) And when ethical issues are at stake, then Nyāya philosophers would say that fallacious moves are justified, at least when a debater has no other option and the consequences might be morally terrible. But how do we know we are in such a situation?

    I’m looking forward to seeing what the article says about the application of vāda to the contemporary context, though–these are just initial thoughts as I’ve been considering this topic independently.

    • Hi Malcolm,

      Thanks for sharing your preliminary thoughts. Earlier this morning, I read your (excellent) “Debating with Fists and Fallacies” article in the International Journal of Hindu Studies (March 2022), and so I think I have some sense of where your concerns are coming from.

      On my reading, Dharmakīrti’s systematization of the hetvābhāsas provides a way of regulating jalpa, etc. in public discussions. We can’t assume that our interlocutors are faithful seekers of truth, and neither could Dharmakīrti. When the hetvābhāsas are linked formally with the satisfaction conditions for anumāna, unvirtuous interlocutors in public discussions are either pulled against their wishes toward vāda, or are revealed as mercenaries, trolls, etc. Dharmakīrti’s intervention transformed the formal mechanisms of pramāṇavāda into a means of cultivating the informal virtues you mention even in the midst of disingenuous discussion.

      Consider the “Tobacco Strategy” that lobbyists have adopted to protect industry interests regardless of truth. They use forms of “good” epistemic practice to create doubt and maintain profits, etc. They equivocate, raise disingenuous objections, ignore counterevidence, and so on. In other words, they practice jalpa.

      My hope is that contemporary applications of vāda and pramāṇavāda can be developed to reveal and resist strategies like theirs. We can’t wait for our interlocutors to develop epistemic virtues. On my reading of his Vādanyāya, neither could Dharmakīrti.

      Thanks again for sharing your initial thoughts!

      All best wishes,

      • Hi Amy, thanks for the reply! I’m actually using Big Tobacco as a central example in my in-progress book on debate and reasoning in Nyāya to make some similar points about how Nyāya philosophers distinguish between genuine and “bogus” inferences. And I agree that the link between virtue and argumentation is important–this is another area I think some work can be done in both Nyāya and Buddhist debate/argumentation theory.

        I just read your intriguing paper today and I’m glad to see other people working on this topic (Agnieszka Rostalska has been, too, perhaps you already know) and thinking about connections between epistemology and debate practices as well as premodern and modern contexts. There’s lot of unexplored terrain.

        It would be great to continue this conversation in a better venue than a blog. Perhaps at the Pacific APA? I’ll be at the upcoming one in April 2023 responding to Catarina Dutilh Novaes’ book “The Dialogical Roots of Deduction,” and hoping to think through some related ideas there. Incidentally, she’s been recently talking about skepticism about the distinction between propaganda and rational argumentation, and I wonder if there are similar challenges in keeping a bright line between jalpa and vāda? Or, if some solutions in that context could be fruitful more broadly? Anyway, thanks for the response and I look forward to seeing where your project goes in the future.

  3. Ethan, thank you very much for reading the article and engaging its arguments! You’ve raised some important concerns. We’ll discuss them more next week at the APA Central in Colorado, I’m sure, but here are a couple of brief and tentative responses to two of your questions. I’ll look to address more of them in a series of comments over the next few days. Patrick and Malcolm — thank you too for your comments. I will also look to respond to them in the next few days.

    1. The concern about pramāṇavāda being an elite discourse is a potentially huge problem for my general proposal. When the question is posed as “can it do the work Donahue asks it to do,” I wouldn’t begrudge you or others for thinking the concern fatal. Traditional vāda practices cannot be cut and pasted into the publics of contemporary modernity and accomplish much if anything – and surely they shouldn’t be expected to hold power to account or to invigorate democracy. Formal pramāṇavāda protocols (e.g., the hetvābhāsas associated with anumāna) take commitment to learn and practice to apply (as my students are discovering). So, formal practices of vāda and pramāṇavāda will fall well short of the “maximal inclusivity” part of the Habermasian regulative ideal if they’re just plonked into contemporary discourse.

    Another way of expressing the concern, though, might be “how can it do the work” that I want it to? Here, the question is an invitation to create new ways of using vāda and pramāṇavāda in contemporary publics, and this is more what I had in mind. The article draws from Michael Warner’s philosophy of publics and counterpublics in part to alert readers (and myself) of the need for practical, and novel, translation. Like any text or textual practices, elite discourses emerge and circulate within publics with specific material conditions of circulation. To circulate beyond these elite publics, texts and textual practices must be adapted to different material conditions. This necessity for creative, practical translation applies as much to vāda and pramāṇavāda as it does to any elite discourse.

    For example, western formal and informal logics need to be translated in ways that make them accessible to undergraduate students in introductory critical thinking and logic courses. Such translation work has gone on for quite a while now and has been creative, varied and widespread (e.g., textbooks, etc., but also argument mapping tools, video games, TikToks, and so on). As a result of such translation efforts, it may not be common, but it’s also not wholly unusual, to read or hear non-academic strangers correctly identify “straw man arguments” or mention “the problem of induction.”

    So, the question I would prefer to ask is, how can concepts and practices from vāda and pramāṇavāda (e.g., hetvābhāsas such as aśrayāsiddha, vyāpyatvāsiddha, etc.) be translated in ways that circulate beyond these elite discourses? Then, I would ask, would such circulation of concepts and practices do the work I want it do? I.e., would such circulation improve the capacities of contemporary publics for “maximally inclusive and epistemically rigorous public discussion” that holds “power to account” (4).

    3. If you don’t mind, I’m going to skip your second question for the moment and turn briefly to the third. What does vāda offer that models of public discussion that are currently more prevalent don’t? In the article, I suggest that vāda that is structured by pramāṇavāda is better equipped to mitigate epistemic injustice or epistemic violence toward unpopular or minoritarian perspectives because of the following features:
    • Unlike the Habermasian public sphere, vāda does not assume impartial, generic subjectivities or idolize consensus.
    Vāda also does not try to boot questions of metaphysics and value from public discourse to private, anything-goes realms.
    • Further, pramāṇavāda provides criteria for assessing reasons, testimony, perceptual evidence, etc. that are sorely lacking in much contemporary public discourse.
    • Finally, vāda that is structured by pramāṇavāda provides mechanisms for tracking theses and countertheses, the proofs and refutations that are raised against theses and countertheses, and the current credibility of these theses and countertheses and proofs and refutations.

    I apologize for this incomplete response, but thank you again very much for engaging my piece. I’ll look to post additional comments over the next few days.

    With all best wishes,

    • Thanks, Amy. We can discuss this in more depth at the APA, of course! But for now I’ll say the issue of translation to the public sphere is interesting, and as you note there is some work on that. The other day, in fact, I saw a series of memes about common fallacies using Star Trek characters. These fallacies had their usual Western names in these memes, but there’s no reason similar things couldn’t be done with the fallacies or argumentative forms of Indian logic and debate.

      On question 3, I did get a sense of most of that from your article, but I think I wanted to press the issue a bit from what I imagined Hambermasians and Millians might say. I do get the sense, especially in online discourse thee days, that the type of “open debate” theorized by Habermas and Mill has degenerated into a sort of free-for-all where “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” is equivocated with “all opinions are the same.” So “debate” these days is often more like people stating their opinions at each other, which is, I think, why it can be so difficult to teach philosophy: many of our students think that stating and restating opinions constitutes “debate” and the very concept of “having a reason for your beliefs” is almost incoherent to many students.

      And there I think structures like anumāna, tarka, and vāda (and maybe even jalpa and vitaṇḍā!) can help, because “having a reason” is an essential part of those structures. It would be more difficult to turn vāda, etc. into the type of free-for-all that has become of Habermasian or Millian ideals and led to dangerous conspiracy theories and other harmful beliefs.

  4. An update from the cutting edge of the unfolding AI/bot controversy. Microsoft’s trial of AI enhanced search has predictably been nudged into frankly delusional twists if it’s own rhetoric. And for the way ahead on search, they have specified *exactly 4x enhanced factual input, to match the generic scope of the traditional four elements of physiology, informing rhetoric.

    Here that matches 4x pramāṇas proposed classically to redress the failings of traditional vāda: and we see that Sanskrit studies still set the tone in back of AI research, even as privatized post the Elon Musk OpenAI venture. And that now matches the concern that pramāṇas were learning-intensive and in that way elitist: the line now is that automation on mass-produced platforms solves that, and democratizes the solution; and the inventor of the Web us backing that, from a fully independent position.

    Think of this as Jung’s four functions, thinking, feeling, sensing, intuition, mapped over Lacans schemas of the generic symbolic order, bringing factual tone to the rhetoric engaging human interest. It is reassuring to see the basis for an open technical standard in an areana as sensitively political as this. But the record of later Jungian research does not give matching confidence: a gap looms short of the Parsons-Mead symbolic interactionism in regular use in politics and advertising. Symbolism itself marks the open question: to what practical extent us it digitizable?

    And here that points us on past pramāṇas, to the debates on language. . .

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