Sunday, February 28, 2016

Teaching the Tarkasaṃgraha to first-year students (cross-posted from the Indian Philosophy Blog)

The post below was originally published at the Indian Philosophy blog, and I encourage readers to submit comments there (comments here are closed).


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.