Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The relevance of classical/medieval Indian philosophy

This week I was scheduled to lecture on Annaṃbhaṭṭa's Tarkasaṃgraha. The primer was written in 17th century India to introduce students to Nyāya philosophy. Heavy on my mind over the weekend while I was revising the lecture (I gave a version last semester as well) was the rising of a new administration in the US. (I'd prefer not to include its name here so as to avoid unwelcome search term visitors.)

There's discussion in some quarters of the Internet about revising syllabi in order to address contemporary issues. For philosophers inclined to do so, I see no reason to object--especially if one's work is contemporary and courses are easily adjusted to incorporate discussion of these things. However, what should those of us who are teaching classes in, say, pre-modern or medieval philosophy do? Do we need to jettison material which doesn't explicitly speak to the modern political context?

I don't think so. My lecture to the students this week began by emphasizing the pervasiveness and importance of debate. Some debates are truth-seeking, some are not. We need to know the difference so we can spot interlocutors who after power or confusion rather than truth. And so we should think about methods of reasoning, such as inference, along with Nyāya, who is concerned with debate (both with an actual interlocutor, but also the kind of internal debate that goes on when truth-seeking). Further, Nyāya is after how to live well, how to do what is right, and not just metaphysical and epistemological hair-splitting. Metaphysics and epistemology are important for liberation, the highest good for Nyāya.

Quote is a translation revised from
Jonardon Ganeri, The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450-1700,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p122.
I set up the historical context for the students--when Annaṃbhaṭṭa is writing his introductory text, he's writing in a time of increasing cultural complexity, where globally, authoritarianism is on the rise (in places like France) and there's tension among followers of Islam and other religions, despite the fact that Islam is nowhere near a monolith. It was a time of global upheaval, we might say, with dynasties in China being overturned and religious conflict in Europe. I let the students draw the parallels, but I think it was fairly clear--as the Preacher says, there is nothing new under the sun.

We then talked about inference, its relationship to perception, its varieties, its obstacles. Throughout, I challenged the students to think about their own reasoning and other examples. How do they know that two things are causally related? What should they say to a skeptic? How should they respond to a counter-argument demonstrating the opposite of what they've just (at least apparently) inferred?

In closing, I reiterated the fact that, for Nyāya, doubt spurs us to investigation. It isn't the place where we stop--and the stakes involved in reasoning well are in fact high. Whether we think the highest good is mokṣa or something else, Nyāya echoes others from all over the world (Śāntideva, Ibn Tufayl, Zhu Xi--to name those my students have read this semester) in asserting the interrelationship between thinking well and living well.

Some days it feels as if there is not much that a single person do in the face of the complexity of the world. However, my hope is that doing just this small part, giving a lecture on reasoning in Nyāya philosophy, may have an impact on the lives of my students and those people with whom they relate.