Teaching debate and reasoning with Nyāya

Imagine you are a seventeen-year old student walking between classes on your college campus. You pass by a white guy, about thirty years old, sitting a table with a banner that says "Male privilege is a myth: change my mind." You've been taking an introduction to feminist philosophy class and are pretty sure this fellow is wrong, or at best, confused. Do you stop and debate him? Why or why not?

Stephen Crowder, at Texas Christian University
That's one of the questions I wanted my students to think about this semester, along with what "debate" is for (both individually and in society more generally) and what grounds its norms. We started this investigation by reading debates in the Upaniṣads and then, for most of the course, focused on Nyāya and Buddhist approaches to debate and reasoning, taking the question of god's existence as our focal point.

By the end of the course, students had read enough to be able to engage in their own debate on the existence of god. They were randomly assigned a position, either that god exists or does not exist, and then were to defend that position using the five-member anumāna (inference) they'd learned about throughout the semester. Some members of the class, which were not debating, constituted the audience, and were asked to track whether debaters followed the appropriate norms, made any fallacies--and they also voted on who they thought won.

After the debate, I had students reflect on what they'd done in light of their understanding of debate virtues and fallacies. What had they done well? Had they engaged in any of the identified flaws? What would they do in a future debate, to ensure they improve? This self-assessment was the major portion of their grade in the debate, and my assessment a smaller element. Such a reflection allowed them to make explicit connections between the texts and concepts we'd focused on and their own application of them. So they might cite a portion of the Nyāyasūtra as evidence for how they had managed to make an objection to an opponent. I have incorporated some assignments involving meta-cognition into all of my classes, and found that it's significantly improved student performance when they have to evaluate themselves, with specific observations and justifications for their conclusions.

While I haven't gotten student evaluations of me back yet, my hope is that from this course they are now in a position to engage more carefully in debate with their peers (in and out of the classroom). As well, I hope they are now also attuned to the fact that debates often occur without agreement about their rules, and their purposes. They saw how Buddhists and Naiyāyikas had different conceptions of debates and of epistemology, and yet this did not prevent them from engaging in robust philosophical conversation. At the same time, it meant that there was a continual movement from first-order topics (does god exist?) to methodology (how do we know that we know?). I find that this dialectic is one of the difficult aspects of philosophy to teach, but looking at Ratnakīrti on īśvara (using sections of Parimal Patil's book Against a Hindu god) was really fruitful.

Now that the students have been introduced to different kinds of debate, debate for the truth, debate for victory, and variations between, I hope that they will pause when they encounter someone inviting them to debate. They've read the Carakasaṃhitā on conditions for debate, and can now reflect on such features as the kind of audience (hostile, friendly, or indifferent) and the relative experience of their opponent. They're attuned to a variety of sophistic moves, such as equivocation, and have grappled with the question of whether they're ever acceptable--what if bad reasoning could convince a gullible audience not to agree with Nazis, and employing such reasoning would prevent harmful actions? These are live questions. I'm looking forward to seeing how they make connections from this class to other contexts, both in their final papers (which offered an "application" option) and in the rest of their time at Yale-NUS.

In fact, it was one of my students who raised the example of the YouTube comedian/debater pictured above, in connection with the Carakasaṃhitā's discussion of when it's prudent to debate. They saw the applicability of this roughly two thousand year old text to their circumstances today, which felt to me like the course had met its aims.


  1. This is such an interesting wat to teach India philosophy, I say. I'm sure your students must have learnt about vada, jalpa and vitanda, and many other forms of discourses in Indian philosophy.
    I've a query. When Indian philosophers talks about fallacies, their main focuses is mostly about "formal fallacies." I mean they talk about different kinds of hetva-bhasas, which are nothing but the result of violation of one or the other rule of panca-hetu (five characteristics of middle term like paksadarmata, sapaksattva etc,.). Of course, they talk about pratijna-hani (hurting the proposition), pratijnãntara, hetvantara, arthãntara etc. But, these are all comes under formal fallacies, I guess. I would say that these are all similar to Western notion of formal fallacies like "denying the antecedent" and "confirming the consequent", purely "formal" in nature.,
    But in Western logic, we have also have something called "informal fallacies" like fallacies of relevance (includes red herring, straw person, appeal to emotion etc), fallacies of defective induction, fallacies of ambiguity,l fallacies of presumption (begging the question or circular reasoning etc), and many other. I'm sure Mimamsa might have something to say on fallacy of ambiguity, because this fallacy has something to do with language and meaning-making and all.
    But, are there any texts which talks about other informal fallacies. If yes, please kindly do let me know so that I will learn more from it.


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