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Teaching argumentation from the Nyaya-Sutras by

P.S. Borkowski, PhD

Posted on November 25, 2012
It is not possible to cover the entirety of argumentation theory in a single course. This is
even more so for professors who are teaching such introductory and general studies
requirements on-line (distance-learning) courses. Our goal in this pedagogy, like
Gotamas, is practical argument drawn from the theoretical basis of argumentation. This
can be extracted from Gotamas Nyaya-Sutras to craft a sequential outline plan for a
course in argumentation for social policy (deliberative) arguments. We want to achieve
the goal of imparting an holistic view of the subject and provide formal validity, value
appeal, and the relevance of the classical traditions. A draft of this article was presented
at the Second International Conference on Argumentation and Rhetoric (21-23
September 2012) at Partium Christian University, Oradea, Romania.
Theoretical orientation
For teaching practical argumentation, the Nyayan syllogism has advantages over the
traditional Greek model that is used. Gotama Akapda (which means his meditative
habit) is the author of the Nyaya-Sutras and lived around second century BC, although it
is argued that the principles of inference expounded in the Nyaya Sutras go back to the
time of Panini in the sixth century. The format of the Nyaya-Sutras that we have today
was designed by Gangesa around the twelfth century.
In addition to teaching the logic of a syllogism, we can extract from this text an
introductory model for teaching deliberative arguments. Our project is not for
decoration or spice but for presenting a holistic perspective of the theory and practice of
argumentation as it always is. Many writing courses are overly familiar to students, so
much so that they do not always make the difference between a language class and the
distinct subject of argumentation and rhetoric. The Nyaya-Sutras is an example of a text
that can raise interest and teach the concepts of argument to todays students.
One of the perennial tenets running through all traditions is that (Truth
alone triumphs). In the Nyaya-Sutras, this is the holistic concept of truth as What is, is
true, that All what is, is. There is a stable, knowable reality within our three
dimensions, five senses, and intellect, and our nearness to understanding it determines
largely how well we discern accurate interpretation and best policy, the preconditions in
the classical traditions to progress in both spiritual matters and daily living. This goal is
associated with light, and -arg- is the Indo-European root meaning to shine. From this
worldview, this general picture of things, argumentation begins on the recognition and
admission that there is truth and that best policies are argued on the basis of it. The
writers job is to communicate what is best for everybody as opposed to a thesis based
on personal agenda or desire. That is, as Richard Weaver expressed it, the difference
between teaching rhetoric and argumentation as utiliter loqui (pragmatic speech to
close a deal, sell, win) and vere loqui (right speech to communicate the truth, the
accurate interpretation, or the best policy).
In this context, one of the issues that should be covered early on is that of relativism.
The Buddhist doctrine of the two truths can help, for it teaches that there is a common
sense truth (samvrtisatya) for daily, concrete perceptions and understandings, and an
absolute truth (paramrthasatya) for ultimate reality. It is interesting to remark that the
Sanskrit term for relative also implies hidden, false, obstructed. The teacher might
point out that English has lost the distinction: relative truth was treowe (trustworthy,
sensible) and absolute truth was s. Since social policies of deliberative argument
cannot be true or false but instead are practical, fair, efficient, etc, social policy is a
matter of what is sensible. Argument is a science of causes (hetu-astra) and a science of
inquiry (nvikiki). We want to prevent students from entering argumentation
superficially as a fakika-astra or science of sophism.
Teaching the fundamental skills of argument provides a way to show the historical and
cultural dimension of reasoned debate, and I believe teachers should want to take
advantage of this opportunity to do so. We can show how the cognitive process of
inference does not change because it is ever-present and constant in humans trans-
culturally across all epochs. Valid reasoning is not devised or constructed by people, it is
observed and thus we can learn and teach it, because it exists in the reason of things and
has its origin in God (St. Augustine, De doctrina Christiana, 2.32). Logic is identified,
the syllogism does not create things but, as the Nyaya-Sutras also teaches, re-aligns
things into their proper relationships, which to the minds of this Sanskrit treatise was
(is) synonymous with integration or yoga. Indeed, this is the perennial aspect of
argumentation as a general science. Nor does logic change with innovations in
technology or science or philosophy because it is the very precondition for those
innovations. Logic is the same for us today in our lecture halls as it was for the medieval
schoolmen in their stone scriptoria, the ancient Greeks beneath their white porticos, the
ancient Aryans in their preceptors hut, and the Talmudic scholars in their courtyard
The process of inference
The Nyaya defines inference as knowledge that is preceded by perception and gives
three basic movements:
a) From a perceived effect to an unperceived cause (sesavat, hypothetical reasoning). If
Z, then what are the possible causes? X caused Z (alone); X and Y both caused Z
(separately); X and Y caused Z (together); X caused Y and Y caused Z (chain); X is
present but not related to Z (association).
b) From a perceived cause to an unperceived effect (purvavat, consequence). If Z, then
what are the possible consequences?
c) Co-existence or simultaneity (samanyatodrista, implication). If Z, then what else
must also be?
According to the Nyaya, the process of inference is always justified, being a kind of
innate mechanism. As shown in this passage, the objectors reasoning is correct but not
the outcome.
If we see a river swollen, we infer that there has been rain; if we see the ants carrying off
their eggs, we infer that there will be rain; and if we hear a peacock scream, we infer that
clouds are gathering. These inferences, says an objector, are not necessarily correct: a
river might be swollen because it is embanked, the ants might carry off their eggs
because their nests have been damaged, and the so-called screaming of a peacock might
be nothing but the voice of a man. However, the swelling of a river caused by rain is
different from that which results from the embankment of a part of it the former
comes with great rapids and currents, an abundance of foam, a mass of fruits, leaves,
wood, etc. The manner in which ants carry off their eggs just before rain is quite
different from the manner in which they do it when their nests are damaged. The ants
run away quickly in a steady line when rain is imminent but fear makes them to fly in
disorder when their nests are damaged. The screaming of a peacock that suggests
gathering clouds is different from a mans imitation of it, for the latter is not natural. If
in such cases any wrong inference is drawn, the fault is in the person and not in the
process. (NS 2.1.98-99)
That is, the inference-process can be improved but must be already in the person
naturally, it is not installed but only sharpened.
To develop the three movements, the instructor can design short exercises for each.
Present a real or invented question about why something is the way it is, include several
hypotheses for students to eliminate in their search for the explanation. Present an
observation (event, proposal, natural phenomenon, invention, conflict) and ask students
to construct steps to the unperceived effect that it will likely lead to. Present an
observation and ask students to identify what else can be inferred to exist that the same
Teaching logos/syl-logos
A list of premises is a set of logoi, but not formally integrated. The Aristotelian contains
two premises and a conclusion. Only one premise and a claim is an enthymeme, the
missing one being understood or kept in mind, which is what that word means literally.
It is such that If the premises are true, and the structure is valid, then the claim must be
accepted. When a syllogism contains more than two premises, it is a chain
- Democracy means rule by the people.
- For people to be able to rule, they must be informed.
- There are no properly informed citizens in a society where there
is no free exchange of ideas.
- There is no free exchange of ideas without free mass-media.
- Therefore, freedom of media is required for a democratic society.
(from Richard Weaver)
A list of reasons from which the claim must be derived necessarily is simply an
enumeration (accumulation):
- Institutions like charities exist only through private donations,
these generous people provide money that is not otherwise
- Charity donations provide tax breaks for the benefactor.
- A generous donation is the same amount of money one would
spend on a nice dinner.
- If we were in their situation, we would want others to help us.
- Charity is not a question, it is an obligation of Holy Scripture.
- Studies have shown that people who give regularly to charities
have lower stress-levels.
- Therefore, a person should give to charity.
Students see first that these are in fact appeals to advantages and values, that they are
reasons (logos), but they are not integrated to derive the claim necessarily (syl-logos).
Syllogism in the Nyaya-Sutras
Next, students observe the structure of the Aristotelian syllogism and explained what
the internal mechanism is that connects the terms.
1. Smoke can be seen on the hill.
(middle) (major)
2. Smoke accompanies fire.
(middle) (minor)
3. Therefore, theres fire on the hill.
(minor) (major)
More relevant examples can be designed to illustrate the concept.
Should a university require a dress code for students?
1. Students desire (minor) what will train them for their career subjects (middle).
2. The career subjects (middle) studied at university normally require dress codes
3. Students should therefore desire (minor) a dress code (major) at university as part of
their training for careers.
The Nyayan syllogism contains five steps (avayava). The first is the proposition QED
(pratina); second is the evidence or reason (hetu); third is a general rule (udharana)
plus an example (drtnta); fourth is the application of the rule (upanaya); fifth is the
conclusion inferred (nigamana). The application in (4) is a formal device but attention
to it illustrates the importance of checking that the example is categorically consistent
with the term it serves. This is where the advantage is over the Greek syllogism.
1. Theres fire on the hill.
2. Smoke can be seen on the hill.
(vyapti) (sdhya)
3. Smoke accompanies fire, like in a hearth.
(vyapti) (paka), (drtnta)
4. A hearths fire is smoky.
5. Therefore, theres fire on the hill.
(paka) (sdhya)
- - -
Proposition: Sound is non-eternal
Reason: Because it is produced.
General rule: Whatever is produced is non-eternal,
+Example: like a pot.
Application: So is sound produced. /is categorically similar.
Claim: Therefore, sound is non-eternal.
We can see that the Greek model is steps 2, 3, and 5 in the Nyayan model. (1) and (5) are
identical and we can recall Protagoras words when the Muse tells him There, where I
was in the beginning, you will find me at the end (The Way).
The advantage of the Nyayan model is the example (drtnta) and the application
of the rule (upanaya). This provides contextuality or modality to the syllogism. These
bring the logic closer, almost in visual terms, to the audience. Once the statements of the
syllogism are completed (sketched out), they may be re-expressed in more idiomatic
terms in the prose of a text (essay or speech).
Symbolic structure
To illustrate the concept, a sketch can be made of the argument if needed. The teacher
will likely spend several class lessons completing exercises in this manner before having
students translate them into prose form. The task of sculpting a syllogism into prose
without altering the validity of the logic is important.
Nyaya Greek
Sound is non-eternal
1. S nE -
2. S P S P
3. P nE, p P nE
4. S&p P -
5. S nE S nE
- - -
1. Reading The little prince (R) makes you greatly advantaged (A).
2. Reading this book (R) instructs about understanding human nature (U).
3. Whoever understands human nature (U) is greatly advantaged (A), like one with
many years of experience in life (y).
4. Reading The little prince (R) and life experience (y) both teach the same things about
understanding human nature (U).
5. Reading The little prince (R) makes you greatly advantaged (A).
1. R A -
2. R U R U
3. U A, y U A, y
4. R&y U -
5. R A R A
- - -
1. Health insurance (HI) cannot be dictated by an employer (~D).
2. Having health insurance (HI) is a personal choice (PC).
3. Personal choice cannot be dictated by another, like the choice whether to commute
(cm) to work by public transportation or drive by car.
4. Health insurance and commuting are both personal choices.
5. Health insurance cannot be dictated by an employer.
1. HI ~D
2. HI PC
3. PC ~D, cm
4. HI&cm PC
5. HI ~D
(4) will often remain unstated in the prose of an essay, but it is useful to check the
accuracy of the example/comparison.
Quality control for the syllogism
The oldest and still most reliable way to check the validity of syllogisms is Aristotles six
rules. The Nyaya-Sutras (1.2.5) gives the following syllogistic fallacies: they are more
practical because they are the most frequent errors of informal logic.
1. Erratic (savyabhicara, ambiguity) in Aristotle, akin to the fallacy of the four terms.
a) two meanings
1. Whatever is in sense experience is material.
2. All knowledge comes from sense experience.
C. Therefore all knowledge is material.
* Two middle terms (in experience and from experience)
b) confusing evaluative and descriptive senses
1. Most people are cheaters, so cheating is natural.
2. What is natural is right.
C. Therefore it is right for me to cheat.
* The term right is shifted from descriptive in (2) to evaluative in (C).
1. It is just for a man to suffer what he has caused another to suffer, an eye for an eye.
2. What is just is right.
C. Therefore a man who killed should be killed.
* In (1) just is evaluative and in (2) it is descriptive.
2. Contradictory (viruddha, contradiction)
3. Equal to the question (prakaranasama, petitio principia)
4. Unproved (sadhyasama, unwarranted assumption)
5. Mistimed (kalatita, irrelevance)
Instructors might want to include the fallacy of the Undistributed middle (All As are B;
X is B; X is A), however it is not as typical as the other five, being in most instances
intuitive. Aristotles fourth and fifth rules concern negative premises and conclusions,
also discussed in the Nyaya: A syllogism may not contain two negative premises; If one
premise is negative then the claim must be in the negative; If the claim is negative then
one premise must be negative.
The 5 topics
The Nyaya treatise offers four principle topics (, loci) of persuasion to which we
will add the syllogism for a total of five topics. Here is the discussion from NS 2.1.126.
Persuasion is effected through praise, blame, warning, and prescription. Praise is speech
that persuades us to a certain course of action by extolling its (moral, advantageous)
consequences, ex: By the Sarvajit sacrifice gods conquered all, there is nothing like
Sarvajit, it enables us to obtain anything and vanquish anyone. Here, there is no direct
command to perform the sacrifice but the praise is extolled in such a way that we are
persuaded that we should do it. Blame is speech that persuades us to adopt a certain
course of action by acquainting us with the shameful, undesirable consequences of
neglecting it, ex: Anyone who performs a sacrifice neglecting the Jyotitoma falls into a
pit and decays there. Here, one is persuaded to perform it because of the very
undesirable consequences of not doing so. Warning is the mention of a course of action,
the obstruction of which by some person led to bad consequences, ex: On presenting
oblation, one is to take the fat first and the sprinkled butter afterwards, but alas! the
Caraka priests did it the other way around, which extinguished the fire. Here, the
foolish action of the Caraka priests serves as a warning to others to avoid such action.
Prescription implies the commendation of something because of its antiquity.
The instructor will cover these in a modern idiom. Falling into a pit and decaying there
is not the most effective strategy, however fearsome it might seem. Praise and
prescription are fairly clear but the distinction between blame and warning is not. We
will interpret them to mean these argument types:
1. Praise Advantage (value)
2. Blame Disadvantage (fear, negative consequence)
3. Warning Principle (propriety, ethical adherence)
4. Prescription Precedent (tried-tested-true)
*5. Syllogism
Rule of adherence
The things that are praiseworthy, disadvantageous, ethically proper, has precedent, and
logical are identified in the audience (C. Perelman, The realm of rhetoric). This provides
the course instructor with the material needed to introduce points about audience
profiling and an audiences values and preferences. It will become clear why Gotama
selected these four.
Lets take the argument from fear/warning as an example. This strategy attempts to
establish that one or several undesirable consequences will follow from not accepting
the proposal. The majority of people naturally obey fear, not shame; they avoid what is
base because of the penalties and not because it is disgraceful (Aristotle, Nicomachean
ethics). The argument from fear is a fallacy only if it cannot be shown that it is real or
likely. The writer shows that the fear/threat is so and that the proposal can reduce,
delay, or eliminate it. The threat must be real (not one-in-a-million), and tangible
(touching the audience directly, not others in a foreign country). There are several
occasions when an audience will psychologically minimize or ignore a threat.
- Improbable: they do not believe it will really happen.
- Remote: it might happen but it will not affect them.
- Unimportant: even if it happens, it wont be so bad.
- Distant: other people might be affected but we wont be.
Other requirements for constructing the appeal might be included. Examples of points
that can be discussed at this point are:
The fear must be such that the audience has learned to react to it before. People do not
have significant reactions to fears that theyve never encountered and thus do not
recognize them.
Threats that are too familiar are also not very effective, ex: arguing that government
corruption will result if the proposal is not accepted will not be persuasive in a country
where this is the normal condition of things. In an argument about avoiding processed
foods, the threat of obesity is not going to be worth much because we are all told several
times a day in the media that we are overweight.
Any suspicion of personal gain must be eliminated from the speaker/writer. An
insurance salesman should not use buying insurance as a remedy to avoid the danger.
If the danger is not believable, the audience will often reject the writer as being a fear-
monger rather than as a source of valuable information.
When the solutions given to eliminate or reduce the threat are insufficient (ex:
proposing that we should delay any action towards a serious threat until more
information comes in), then a surplus anxiety remains and the audience will become
insensitive to the threat in the future.
Refutation Jati
Refutation is defined as reasoning that reveals the character [of your proposal] by
showing the absurdity of all contrary characters (NS 1.1.40). Objections to ones
proposal must be treated because refuting them has a persuasive character or status.
This is really an ethics of intellectual activity:
The methodological principle is that it is always best to give the strongest possible
interpretation of an argument or a view, particularly if [it] undermines a position that
we currently hold. If our aim is to see our position fully tested, the best way to do that is
to meet it head on and answer the strongest objections that could be brought out against
it. That is more than to follow the dictum Know your enemies; it is to hold that one
should give battle to the strongest forces that can be mustered against oneself, so that
the victory will be decisive and not Pyrrhic. Besides, there is always the possibility that
we might be wrong and thus that the development of the strongest possible case for a
position contrary to ours might make us see where we are mistaken.
(Jorge Gracia, Philosophy and its history)
Gotama enumerates the perennial forms of refutation in various parts of the Nyaya-
1. Wrong in principle: the opposing view violates something which the audience accepts
as ethically binding.
2. Undesirable consequences (as above).
3. Reciprocity: the opponents would not wish their view applied to themselves.
4. Hidden agendas: the opposing position is motivated by some personal gain or bias. In
Sanskrit this might be in some instances akin to wrangling or cavil.
5. Analogy: the opposing view is like something considered absurd or shameful,
impractical, etc.
At this point we should mention the tact of granting concessions to opponents.
Concessions should be short and not too generous, otherwise they can weaken ones
position and then out of a superabundance of fairness, we concede things to our
opponent even though they are wicked, false, inept, or dubious (Vico, Instituzioni
oratorie). Do not say of any error, It is merely a matter of opinion,for no man indulges
an error of judgment, without sooner or later tolerating an error in practice (Charles
Spurgeon, Morning & evening). Here is a list that can be incorporated into our project:
- The opposing view does not follow logically from the premises given for it; is
hypocritical, contains a contradiction.
- The opposing view is dangerous.
- The opposing view is not financially advantageous (wasteful).
- The opposing view is trying to deceive the audience.
- The opponent is biased, promotes a personal agenda or ideology only.
- The opponents view will lead to undesirable consequences or an absurd situation.
- The opposing view is ethically wrong in principle /or impinges on the rights of others.
- The opposing view violates an existing law.
- The opposing side proposes something they would not want applied to themselves.
- Show that the opponents position was tried before and failed or led to some undesired
or embarrassing results.
- The opposing view is based on false assumptions or on ignorance of key facts, or fails
to notice important distinctions and nuances.
- The opposing view is short-sighted, will not work in the long-term.
- The opposing view will open more problems.
- The opposing view does not get to the source of the problem.
Another strategy is to identify what people generally accept and then show that your
view is consistent with it. C.S. Lewis was a master of this technique of identification.
There are two forms that can be used.
a) Something accepted by opponents leads to its own refutation:
We know that the body works on a chemical and material cause-effect basis. But this
cannot be all of it because such a strict materialism refutes itself: if my mental processes
are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, then I have no basis to
suppose that my beliefs are true, and hence I have no basis to suppose my brain to be
composed of atoms.
(C.S. Lewis, Miracles)
b) Something accepted by opponents leads to your view:
Few people would be willing to allow water sewage treatment or garbage collection to be
in private hands. We readily agree that police, firefighters, and electricity are public
utilities. Parents consider the public school system to be a public utility so that their
children can be taken care of while they are at work. Since these things are needed by
everybody, and medical treatment is also needed by everybody, even more so, then why
are so many afraid to treat medicine as a public utility?
(Lev Krotkin, The individual and social process)
- -
Those who claim to care about the well-being of humansshould become vegetarians
for that reason alone. They would thereby increase the amount of grain available to feed
people elsewhere, reduce pollution, save water and energy, and cease contributing to the
clearing of forestsWhen non-vegetarians say that human problems come first, I
wonder what exactly it is that they are doing for human beings that compels them to
continue to support the wasteful, ruthless exploitation of farm animals.
(Peter Singer, Animal liberation)
Pedagogical model
It is not possible to cover the entirety of argumentation theory in a single course. This is
even more so for teachers who are doing on-line (distance-learning) courses. Our goal,
like Gotamas, is practical argument. From the above discussion, we have a sequential
outline plan for a course in argumentative writing:
a) The argument from perceived advantage or value
b) The argument from disadvantage;
c) The argument from principle
d) The argument from precedent
e) The argument from syllogism
Steps 3 and 4 are interchangeable, of course. Exercises can be easily designed for each
step. And all of the steps will fit nicely together for longer essay tasks. Thus, the goal of
imparting an holistic view of the subject and providing formal validity, value appeal, and
the relevance of the classical traditions are accomplished.
The sacred books of the Hindus, vol.8: NYAYA SUTRAS OF GOTAMA. Edited by B.D.
Basu. Sudhindranatha Vasu, Bahadurganj, India 1913.

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