Vātsyāyana: Cognition as a Guide to Action
Abstract and Keywords
Vātsyāyana (c.450 ce) is the author of the Commentary on Nyāya, the first full commentary on the Nyāya-sūtra of Gautama (c.150 ce), which is itself the foundational text of the school of philosophy called “Nyāya.” The Nyāya tradition is home to a number of leading voices within classical Indian philosophy and is celebrated in later doxographies as one of the six “orthodox” systems of Hindu thought. Vātsyāyana’s commentary sets the agenda for much of Nyāya’s philosophical developments throughout its history. This chapter explores his theory of knowledge, giving special attention to his account of the nature and importance of cognition as a guide to action. It illustrates the way in which this theme informs a number of apparently distinct elements of his project including his realism, his account of epistemic entitlement, and his notion of philosophy’s contribution to living well.
Pakṣilasvāmin Vātsyāyana (c.450 ce) is the author of the Commentary on Nyāya (Nyāya-bhāṣya), the first full commentary1 on the Nyāya-sūtra of Gautama (c.150 ce), which is itself the foundational text of the school of philosophy called “Nyāya.”2 The Nyāya tradition is home to a number of leading voices within the classical Indian philosophical scene and is celebrated in later doxographies as one of the six “orthodox” systems of Hindu thought. Given the way that sūtra texts and their first commentaries are profoundly intertwined, Vātsyāyana’s work provides a formative vision of Nyāya’s self-conception as a philosophical system as well as interpretive strategies, central lines of argumentation, and determinations of importance that later Naiyāyikas (Nyāya philosophers) often take to be as much as a given as the original text itself.3 Along with its sustained defense of metaphysical realism across various fronts, Nyāya is best known for its achievements in epistemology and logic, and as indicated by the title of this chapter, the lens through which we will explore Vātsyāyana’s thought is his theory of knowledge. We will give special attention to his account of the nature and importance of cognition as a guide to action and will illustrate the way in which this theme informs a number of apparently distinct elements of his project including his realism, his account of epistemic entitlement, and his notion of philosophy’s contribution to living well.
We will loosely follow Vātsyāyana’s own notion of proper methodology, which identifies core topics of concern, provides succinct analyses of each, and then engages in more extensive examination and refinement through dialectical engagement with rival views.4 The first two sections of this paper will provide concise accounts of his positions on various issues including epistemology and the nature of philosophical inquiry, laying out the major terrain, while sections three and four will focus closely on portions of (p. 210) the text that provide the philosophical foundations for these positions. The final section consists in brief reflections on Vātsyāyana’s legacy.
A further remark on methodology: The task of this paper is not to isolate those philosophical views of Vātsyāyana that are truly “his own” independent of the Nyāya-sūtra or any other ancient sources. Our perspective is that whether he is explaining a sūtra or producing a new line of argumentation, if Vātsyāyana puts something forth as his own view, then it is his own view regardless of ancestry.
1. Cognition, Action, Realism
Why is knowledge important? Why should we care about getting things right and doing so in a way that is reliable and secure? Further, what supports the widespread disposition we have to argue in support of what we take ourselves to know in the face of public disagreement and philosophical challenge? In the opening lines of his Commentary on the first Nyāya-sūtra, Vātsyāyana provides a programmatic account of the value of knowledge. Doing so, he neatly sets the agenda for Nyāya epistemology in its foundational period.5
A knowledge source (pramāṇa6) is accurate, since cognition produced by a knowledge source leads to successful action. Without a knowledge source, one does not cognize an object. Without cognition of an object, one’s actions are not successful.
(Commentary, 1; under Nyāya-sūtra 1.1.1)7
The tie between knowledge sources and successful action is immediately elaborated,
Having grasped an object by means of a knowledge source, an individual either desires to obtain it or to avoid it. This striving of someone possessed of desire or aversion is purposive action. For such action, success is a relationship with its result: someone who acts possessed of desire or aversion toward some object will either achieve or avoid it. The object may be happiness, something instrumental toward it, unhappiness, or something instrumental toward it.
(Commentary, 1; under Nyāya-sūtra 1.1.1)
Here we find in seed form the confluence of a number of philosophical commitments. First, there is a conception of cognition as a relationship between a knower and an object, underwritten by identifiable knowledge sources. Second, there is a fundamental concern with successful action, which is held to be the pragmatic goal of cognition and an indicator of proper cognitive functioning. Third, and finally, there is a broad realism that holds that success in action is determined by our ability to enter into right relations with the network of external objects that constitute our environment. Let us consider these in order.
(p. 211) Cognition
Cognition is an intentional mental property through which individuals entertain contentful awareness. Minimally, such content takes the form of an object qualified by a property. Vātsyāyana approaches cognition as an epistemologist, and therefore, his most basic categories of cognitive states are framed along epistemological lines: veridical, nonveridical, and doubtful. Veridical cognition or knowledge is a veridical contentful awareness of some object or fact. False cognition also targets an object (one must be wrong about something), but presents it as qualified by a property alien to it (e.g., seeing a person in the distance as a post). Finally, doubt is a cognition that targets an object, but “wavers.” This may be due to internal considerations where the subject recognizes that as presented, the object being scoped by the cognition is not sufficiently clear to make a confident determination (e.g., the thing seen in the distance could be a person or a post). It may also be due to adversarial challenge or peer disagreement, which undermines the confidence required for genuine awareness. Doubt is relative to a certain range of detail or specification. That is, even doubted cognition is apprehended with some degree of accuracy or veridicality (whether it is a person or post that is seen in the distance, thing in question is accurately apprehended as being roughly 5–6 feet high). The cognition is doubtful qua some distinguishing property (or properties) deemed worthy of resolution.
Vātsyāyana uses terms for “knower” (pramātṛ) that may be appropriately translated as “cognitive agent,” referring to one who employs knowledge sources (pramāṇas), conceived of as instruments, to produce veridical cognition (pramā). Vātsyāyana’s project is centrally devoted to analysis of knowledge sources, providing an account of how they generate epistemic normativity. Occasionally, he speaks of pramāṇa loosely as a “cause of cognition” and in this sense allows all sorts of things to count as pramāṇa so long as they play a causal role in the production of cognition (e.g., visible light). But when speaking more strictly, focusing on the fundamental, irreducible knowledge sources upon which we rely, he speaks exclusively of the four pramāṇas championed by the Nyāya-sūtras: perception, inference, analogy, and testimony.8 Discussing these, Vātsyāyana provides a simple definition of pramāṇa based on etymology: “that through which an object is veridically cognized.”9 His further remarks suggest that he individuates knowledge sources according to function, a distinct sort of causal mechanism that generates a distinct sort of cognitive output. For example, perception involves the connection between sense-faculties directly upon their objects, and produces output cognition whose features are produced directly from such connection. Inference, by contrast, has a causal process hinging on a distinctive “inner” element, namely the recognition that something is qualified by a “sign” known to be invariably correlated with a “signified” fact or property; it is not produced directly from the connection between sense-faculty and the object of inference.10 Testimonial cognition is distinguished from inferential cognition that it is generated by the speech of a trustworthy person, which involves causal conditions that include the honesty of a speaker and the conventional relationships between words and meanings.11 (p. 212)
Vātsyāyana suggests that by definition, knowledge sources must produce veridical cognition. That is, a token knowledge source has occurred only if there is veridical cognition. At best, apparently true but nonveridical cognition is an imitator. It looks like the real thing, but isn’t. This is made explicit while discussing perception: While misperception, doubtful perception, and veridical perception are all causally generated by a connection between a sense-faculty and object, and generate cognition with a distinct sort of phenomenal character, only veridical perception is perception proper, since by definition “perceptual cognition does not deviate, it grasps something as it truly is.”12 While this success requirement is not explicit in the sūtras that define the other knowledge sources, Vātsyāyana provides some hints that he reads them as such across the board.13
Further nuance to Vātsyāyana’s theory of cognition is provided in a discussion on definitive or settled ascertainment (nirṇaya). Following Nyāya-sūtra 1.1.41, Vātsyāyana notes that paradigmatically, such ascertainment occurs as the deliberative resolution of a doubt and as the conclusion of systematic reflection and debate considering both sides of a disputed topic. But he explicitly rejects the notion that settled ascertainment always depends on self-conscious, reflective reasoning. Rather, in cases of perceptual experience or authoritative testimony, definitive ascertainment may be produced by the mere functioning of a knowledge source, without need for reflection or review.14 This qualification is but one indication of a two-tiered approach to epistemic justification in Vātsyāyana. Knowledge sources often generate knowledge in a way that is reliabilist in character, with no need for reflective awareness, deliberation, or the like. When legitimate doubt arises, however, the cognitive agent then shifts to reflective assessment of cognition, sifting through the evidence, and ideally generating justification along internalist lines, which crucially relies on good, accessible reasons and sensitivity to defeaters.15 Most fundamentally, providing for success in action is the touchstone to determine legitimate knowledge sources. This, akin to track-record arguments in contemporary reliabilism, is a cornerstone of Vātsyāyana’s vision of epistemic justification.
Early in his commentary, Vātsyāyana remarks that all living beings are concerned with acting such that they may attain goods and avoid evils.16 Goal-directed action is a ubiquitous feature of life, and, as noted above, concern with success in action is what naturally leads us to reflect on the legitimacy of our cognitive resources. Vātsyāyana stresses two ways that action depends upon cognition: motivation and guidance. Occurrent cognition of an object x, informed by a memory trace with content akin to “objects of x’s type are desirable,” is a central factor in the arising of purposive action to achieve x.17 Cognition then provides guidance throughout the process of acting, allowing one to navigate the world effectively to achieve success. (p. 213)
Ordinary practice for all sciences, all purposive actions, and indeed, all living beings relies on the settled output of knowledge sources.
(Commentary 272; under Nyāya-sūtra 4.2.29)
For one motivated to achieve virtue, wealth, pleasure, and spiritual felicity, while avoiding things opposed to them, carrying out the activities of life (vyavahāra) is possible on the basis of his knowledge of the sources of cognition and their proper objects.
(Commentary, 67; under Nyāya-sūtra 2.1.21).
In consonance with the broad range of goals outlined here, Ganeri notes that Vātsyāyana is “liberal in the matter of conceptions of the good towards which people strive. It is not that there is some one good, which knowledge happens to be instrumental in achieving.”18 This is clearly the case insofar as motivational cognition provides action with its goal (prayojana), thus generating an internal standard by which it may be deemed successful or unsuccessful.19 This observation should be nuanced, however, by noting that whether lip-service or not, in consonance with the ascetical tendencies Nyāya shares with many early Indian philosophical traditions, Vātsyāyana frames the ultimate personal good in soteriological terms, as liberation from the ills of embodied life. While this is most clearly expressed in his commentaries on sūtras 1.1.2, 1.1.22, and 4.2.1, it is a recurring theme, even structuring his reading of the sūtras as a whole. Discussing Nyāya’s second major topic of inquiry, “objects of knowledge,” he notes that Nyāya accepts the basic Vaiśeṣika metaphysical categories of substance, property, action, universal, individuator, and inherence. Yet, he suggests, the reason that the Nyāya-sūtra rather lists “self, body, senses, cognition, etc.” as the fundamental objects of knowledge is that understanding the nature of these specific objects is more directly conducive to the project of liberation.20
Vātsyāyana defends metaphysical realism across various fronts: Many of the objects, properties, and structural features of the world that are discovered in common experience exist independently of cognition. Such would include property-bearing substances, atoms, universals, and individual selves who maintain their identity through time. These features of the world are furthermore the truthmakers for cognition: “When something that exists is grasped as real, according to its nature, and without the ascription of features alien to it, such is truth (tattva). Likewise, when something that does not exists is grasped as unreal, according to its nature, and without the ascription of features alien to it, such is truth.”21 Given this, and in opposition to some of his philosophical rivals like Nāgārjuna, Vātsyāyana denies that living well requires an intellectual deconstruction of the objects of ordinary experience. Rather, (p. 214) we must use our critical faculties to understand them so that we may enter into proper relationships with them.
Beyond the action-motivating and action-guiding features of cognition already discussed, Vātsyāyana notes a further contribution that cognition makes to living well that should not be overlooked: it helps rectify pernicious affective states, based on misconception, that prevent us from committing to appropriate goals. He not only contends that various knowledge sources theoretically establish that we have a deep self that is free from the contingencies of ordinary life, but further, that they help us come to reflective awareness of this fact, preventing unhealthy and ultimately painful patterns of behavior predicated upon our taking the whole of our identity to consist in our fleeting worldly impulses and desires.22 Vātsyāyana thus incorporates “therapeutic” aspects of philosophy within his metaphysical realism, and he is concerned to distinguish this approach from that of skeptics and anti-realists whose therapeutic approach is itself a repudiation or alternative to realism: “For one who wants liberation, what is rejected is a certain mentality regarding aspects of substances, not the substances themselves.”23
Under the banner of realism, we should add an observation on methodology. Vātsyāyana often adverts to widespread human conduct and linguistic practice (vyavahāra) as a constraint on adequate theorizing. Agreement with ordinary practice minimally supports the prima facie legitimacy of a view or thesis. And such theses that would profoundly upend ordinary practice are either refuted as untenable or requiring substantial support to be taken seriously. This is expressed in various ways and in different contexts (some of which will be discussed below), but we venture to suggest that in a mitigated way, this is one manifestation of a nascent world-affirming feature of his thought, despite his ultimate concern with liberation.
2. The Role of Philosophical Inquiry
Where do philosophical reflection and systematic philosophy fit within this conception of cognition and its contribution to living well? If, for Aristotle, philosophy begins in wonder, for Vātsyāyana it begins with doubt, which interrupts an agent’s default trust in her cognitive presentations and demands systematic resolution.24 Philosophy thus takes its departure from the practice of cognitive review.
We can identify two major tasks of philosophy in the Nyāya-bhāṣya. One, an “internal” task, is to effectively prosecute such review, solidifying one’s cognitive holdings by appeal to knowledge sources, rational critique (tarka), and constructive debate with like-minded thinkers (vāda). Indeed, according to Vātsyāyana’s initial characterization of nyāya as a method of inquiry, it simply is philosophy in this sense.25 Vātsyāyana equates nyāya with ānvīkṣikī, “reflective deliberation,” one of the four primary “sciences” or intellectual disciplines (vidyā) mentioned in ancient texts on medicine and statecraft.26 In these sources, ānvīkṣikī is centrally focused on the deliberative, rational resolution of competing options in the pursuance of religious/ethical, economic, and (p. 215) political success. In the Mahābhārata, ānvīkṣikī is further associated with the ability to solve challenging and arcane theoretical problems.27 This provides a natural connection to Nyāya, which is focused upon rational deliberation and solution of fundamental questions that are disputed or doubtful. Vātsyāyana notes that Nyāya’s investigative procedure is motivated in a way that is similar to ordinary purposive action: “All living beings, all purposive actions, and all sciences (vidyā) require motivation. Nyāya also proceeds on its basis.”28 While ānvīkṣikī is not exactly a synonym of “philosophy,” it has strong resonances with it for two reasons: (i) ānvīkṣikī is centered on the reflective use of reason and (ii) it has the widest range of the intellectual disciplines, taking up the subjects of other disciplines as required.29
According to this internal task of review and refinement of one’s beliefs, philosophy supports the basic project of cognitive success, and hence living well.
Why would one want to inquire about something that is not properly known? Because he thinks “I will avoid, pursue, or remain indifferent toward an object that is known in truth.” And thus, the point of knowing something in truth is to avoid, pursue, or be indifferent to it. This is the point of systematic inquiry.30
This method is not only operative in ordinary sorts of questions involving practical rationality. The task of yogic self-discovery and liberation is also facilitated by theoretical reflection upon topics like the deep self, along with philosophical dialogue with sympathetic thinkers. This, Vātsyāyana claims, produces maturity of understanding: “the removal of doubts, awareness of things previously unknown, and the reflective acceptance of something previously grasped.”31
A second, “external” task of philosophy is to defend or advance one’s findings though argument with rival thinkers. The Nyāya-sūtra is a text on not only epistemology and metaphysics, but also debate theory. Vātsyāyana slides between those elements of the text that focus on epistemology and logic and those that focus on rhetoric and formal debate.32 For example, he suggests that a systematic study (śāstra) and a public debate (kathā) are methodologically similar in that they begin with a specific doubt that they aim at resolving. Noncompetitive debate with like-minded thinkers is an integral part of the search for knowledge, while competitive debate with rivals is a way to protect the gains acquired thereby. In such contexts of debate and philosophical dispute, the same knowledge sources that guide individuals in their daily lives become the primary resources by which philosophers make their case. Vātsyāyana thus chides an interlocutor for contradicting the findings of attested knowledge sources, which apprehend things according to their true nature.33
Closing the initial portion of our inquiry, we may conceptualize Vātsyāyana’s vision of knowledge and philosophical inquiry as embedded within a hierarchy of goods (Figure 11.1).
The following portions of our study will provide close studies of philosophical developments within the outside circles, examining passages where Vātsyāyana defends his realism and his epistemological methodology from attack. (p. 216)
3. The Skeptical Regress and Pragmatic Entitlement
Throughout the Commentary, Vātsyāyana evinces concern with skeptics and “deniers” of various sorts. Some are identified as those who simply devote themselves to tearing down other positions, while disavowing any positive thesis of their own. Others reject some of the most basic features of reality as commonly experienced (e.g., that substances that bear properties truly exist, or that there is a real external world). While the motivations of these skeptics are not fleshed out, we may note that the historical figures who have advanced similar arguments in classical India have rejected a connection between living well and what we have been calling cognitive success, minimally suggesting that a concern with “getting things right” as held by Naiyāyikas and allied thinkers is in fact a hindrance to living the best kind of life. The early portions of the second book of the Nyāya-sūtra give voice to skeptics who pose a variety of challenges to pramāṇa epistemology. Some of the most important reflections on Nyāya (p. 217) epistemology—and indeed, early Indian epistemology—are found in Vātsyāyana’s responses to these attacks.
The first challenge proffered is “the argument of the three times,” which alleges that knowledge sources are ineffective whether they are prior to, posterior to, or concurrent with their objects.34 This argument is sophistical in spirit, and unworthy of extensive discussion here, but it does provide a context for Vātsyāyana to lay out concrete methodologies of epistemological analysis that are crucial to his project. Fundamentally, Vātsyāyana endorses something akin to Ernest Sosa’s notion of “particularism”:35 We don’t start by venturing a priori determinations of the specific relationships between knowledge sources and their objects (e.g., that they are “prior to” their objects). Rather, we start by identifying instances of cognitive success, pramāṇa tokens, and then determine their specific nature by reflection upon experience (yathādarśana). On this basis, theorists may then further elaborate distinct analyses of knowledge sources.
Central to this methodology is the contention that knowledge sources are themselves objects of knowledge. Vātsyāyana makes this case extensively, appealing to common epistemic practice and to the nature of Sanskrit grammatical categories for the factors (kārakas) that accomplish an action. To summarize the latter, we find that terms like “agent” or “object” may be applied to the same thing according to context. A tree is the agent of the act of standing, but the object of one’s vision as she gazes at it. There is thus no contradiction between the same thing being both an agent and an object. 36 Sources of knowledge can thus in principle be objects of knowledge, and in turn, robust theorizing and analysis. This, Vātsyāyana argues, is the import of Nyāya-sūtra 2.1.16, “Just as a scale that is a source of knowledge is also an object of knowledge.”
Our primary concern here is the skeptical challenge of Nyāya-sūtra 2.1.17–20, an attack on the structural features of pramāṇa epistemology.37 It is important to keep in mind that this challenge presupposes the methodology just outlined, and indeed starts by agreeing that it is entirely acceptable. Vātsyāyana initiates his commentary on this section in the voice of a skeptic:
This is true…. Perception and the rest are sources of knowledge insofar as they are causes of cognition, and they are objects of knowledge insofar as they are the content of cognition. They are reflectively identified as such: “I know through perception,” “I know through inference,”… “my knowledge is perceptual,” “my knowledge is inferential”… knowledge sources, which are distinctly known in this way, are understood according to their distinguishing features in their technical analyses….38
The skeptical challenge starts by considering that very cognition which takes perception, and so on, as its own object (e.g., “my cognition is perceptual”), to which we vaguely appeal when speaking of common reflection upon cognitive practice. He asks, “Is this cognition, which takes perception and the rest as its object (i) itself grounded by another knowledge source, or (ii) posited without grounding by another knowledge source?”39 Thus, a dilemma ensues:
If the knowledge sources are established by another knowledge source, there is the unwanted consequence that yet another knowledge source is to be established.
If, like any other object of knowledge, knowledge sources must be established by the deployment of other knowledge sources, this would lead to an infinite regress, as we would need knowledge source3 to support knowledge source2 and so on. But regarding the other option:
If no additional knowledge source is required to ground it, then let the objects of knowledge be established in the same way.
If a knowledge source is simply posited in order to escape an infinite regress, one would abandon the very principle that motivates Nyāya epistemology: when things are known, there must be (in principle, citable) knowledge sources by which we cognize them. Why not, then, simply posit the things claimed to be objects of knowledge sources at the ground level? This, Vātsyāyana notes, would undermine all of the knowledge sources.
His response starts from Nyāya-sūtra 2.1.19:
No, the pramāṇas are established like the light of a lamp.
At first glance, this sūtra would appear to support foundationalist considerations: Light makes itself evident in the act of illuminating other things, without requiring yet another source of illumination. So too do knowledge sources generate knowledge of themselves as they generate knowledge of their objects. Therefore, the status of pramāṇas as knowledge sources is established without appeal to any other support. This would stop the justificational regress by appeal to the deliverances of knowledge sources that are known to be veridical by means of their own functioning. The text would thus offer a foundationalist solution to the problem of epistemic regress that avoids the perils of mere postulation as mentioned above.40
Vātsyāyana refuses to interpret the sūtra in this way, however, and takes it rather to reiterate the mutual support found among knowledge sources: as lamplight is a cause of perceptual cognition, it may loosely be spoken of as a pramāṇa. Yet it is an object of knowledge as well, since we may cognize its presence through perception, inference, and testimony. In the same way, we may grasp the various structural features of specific knowledge sources through what we may call “inter-pramāṇic support.” When appropriate, knowledge sources take other knowledge sources as objects. Vātsyāyana provides the example of perception, noting the way in which each part of Nyāya’s definition of perception (sūtra 1.1.4) may be known through specific knowledge sources. The upshot of this is that Vātsyāyana suggests that the skeptic has offered a false dilemma: Knowledge sources neither require new knowledge sources to ground their existence, nor are they posited without support. Rather, those very knowledge sources with which we are familiar provide rich, sophisticated mutual support, in a complex web of mutual justification. Rejecting both infinite regress and postulation, his solution has some parallels with coherentist accounts, insofar as it recognizes that any attempt to critically assess our knowledge sources requires us to avail ourselves of them. There is no way to step outside (p. 219) of our web of putative pramāṇa-generated cognition to evaluate it from the outside.41 But it is not a wholesale coherentism, as coherence is not the feature which provides individual cognition with positive epistemic status. Rather, on the ground level, such is determined largely by externalist or reliabilist considerations (e.g., if it is the product of a genuine knowledge sources or a misfire). We look for inter-pramāṇic support only in cases of doubt or cognitive review. If anything, negative coherence plays an important role here, as apparent incoherence between cognitions typically generates such doubt and triggers review.
The skeptic follows up, appropriately, with a charge analogous to circular reasoning: as construed, pramāṇa epistemology would improperly allow “something to grasp itself,” which would violate the anti-reflexivity principle common to Indian thinkers.42 Vātsyāyana resists the charge of circularity by underscoring the fact that inter-pramāṇic support is understood to occur between pramāṇa tokens.43 The skeptical challenge seems persuasive if baldly stated in the following form: (e.g.) “perception cannot ground perception,” taking pramāṇas as types. But, we may note that in common experience, token knowledge sources are used to support other token knowledge sources of the same type as well as other types. If doubt arises regarding something I thought I saw, I may go back to take another look, confirming what I originally saw. A perceptual token thus grounds another perceptual token. Or, I may ask a friend if she saw the same thing, now supporting my perceptual token with a testimonial token. And so on. In all cases, epistemic support takes place between token knowledge sources.
Thus far, the charges of infinite regress of types of knowledge sources and the mere postulation of new knowledge sources have been dealt with. But even on the level of token knowledge sources, there may be the danger of infinite regress, as the skeptic could ask for knowledge sources token2 that supports knowledge sources token1 and so on. What blocks this regress? In his commentary on the final sūtra of this section, (2.1.20) Vātsyāyana responds,
Does cognition of perception and the rest by perception and the rest lead to an infinite regress? No, as we are fit to engage in the activities of life simply on the basis of knowing the causes and objects of knowledge: “I know through perception,” “I know through inference”… “my knowledge is perceptual,” “my knowledge is inferential”… For one motivated to achieve virtue, wealth, pleasure, and spiritual felicity, while avoiding things opposed to them, carrying out the activities of life (vyavahāra) is possible on the basis of his knowledge of the sources of cognition and their proper objects. Such activities continue on this basis alone, and there is no other kind of activity that would necessitate an infinite regress.44
The epistemic regress may be stopped when we end with some cognition to which we are entitled, regarding which we flout no duties or appropriate norms in accepting. Speaking of knowledge sources (as opposed to cognition), the regress may be stopped when we come to some knowledge source of which we are entitled to avail ourselves. Starting with that cognition that takes other cognitions (or knowledge sources) as its object, the (p. 220) skeptic has presupposed that it is always acceptable to demand “what grounds this one?” leading to infinite regress, as this question is repeated at each step. Vātsyāyana does not seek to end the regress with cognition to which we are entitled because it is epistemically justified in the sense that they are the products of self-consciously attested pramāṇas, as this would just perpetuate the regress. Rather, the regress ends with cognition to which we are indeed entitled, but pragmatically so.
As we have seen, for Vātsyāyana, we are concerned with epistemic reflection because we want to live well. Successful action requires successful cognition, and because of this, we are driven to resolve unclear or contradictory cognitions. But in the absence of legitimate doubt, epistemic overscrupulousness is not only unnecessary, but stultifying, being at odds with the very motivation that leads us to be concerned with epistemology in the first place. Our default trust in the apparent deliverances of knowledge sources is justified on pragmatic grounds.45
In an allied line of reasoning, Vātsyāyana contends that we need not search for epistemic resources outside of the well-known knowledge sources in order to justify them prior to investing our confidence in them. Unless a genuine explanatory need were to arise, the knowledge sources with which we are familiar may be trusted. Just as it would be epistemic overscrupulousness to try to trace the chain of epistemic grounding as far back as possible, so too would it be to worry about knowledge sources in toto, in the absence of compelling reasons.46
Dialectically, using pragmatic entitlement as a limit on skeptical challenge along with an emphasis on success in action as a sign of cognitive success serves to illustrate that skeptical attempts to continue the regress, even after success in action, amount to something like mere contentiousness. If, having illustrated to a skeptic that all of the available pramāṇas strongly suggest that a certain drink has been poisoned, she still claims “we aren’t sure, since those knowledge sources haven’t been justified,” Vātsyāyana could respond, “Okay then, drink it.” But of course, she wouldn’t. In ordinary life, once we have apparently veridical deliverances of the knowledge sources regarding something of practical import, we act with confidence, and “there is no other kind of activity that would necessitate an infinite regress” (emphasis added). We may here recall Aristotle’s response to a similar sort of challenger in the Metaphysics: “Again, it is fair to express surprise at our opponents for raising [such skeptical doubts]. For obviously they do not think these to be open questions; no one, at least, if when he is in Libya, he fancies one night he is in Athens, straightaway starts for the Odeum.”47 The knowledge sources fundamentally guide action, and it is here that no one, skeptic included, has the luxury of sitting on the sidelines.
The extent of pragmatic entitlement should not be overstated: It does not vindicate cognition that should be doubted or rejected. Rather, it allows our default status to be one of trust in apparent deliverances of knowledge sources that have no obvious blemishes or defects. We need go no further. This is why, as we’ve seen above, cognitive review starts when doubt is triggered through considerations internal to oneself or through legitimate adversarial challenge. And when doubt is satisfied or accepted, we settle the status of the cognition in question and return to default trust. It is also important to note that this strategy is not to commit the “postulation” discussed in sūtra 2.1.18. The principle that (p. 221) knowledge sources must be cited to support truth claims is not violated here, but rather circumscribed. When legitimate doubt arises, then one must reflect on which knowledge sources support the currently doubted cognition. In the absence of such doubt, however, we are entitled to take apparently veridical cognition at face value.48
4. Waking Up: The Primacy of the Veridical
We have taken note of the way in which Vātsyāyana unites realism with a view of philosophy that is therapeutic, meant to help individuals rectify unhealthy affective states and live better lives. Some of the tensions that arise between these two features of his thought become evident within his commentary on Nyāya-sūtra 4.2.1–3. This section begins with a discussion of that true cognition that leads to liberation. Vātsyāyana remarks that one becomes degraded by entertaining the objects of cognition informed by attitudes of appropriation and self-interested projection (e.g., a man would thus see a woman according to a limited perspective that primarily frames her as a potential sexual partner). For the purpose of liberation, Vātsyāyana advises that one instead entertain the objects of experience according to avayava-saṁjñā, the notion of their parts (e.g., the man in question would instead see the features of a woman’s body as aspects of human physiology, embedded within fairly unappealing biological functions, and like all biological entities, subject to decay). Such would hinder the attitudes of appropriation and desire, and conduce to liberation.
Vātsyāyana recognizes the way in which this deconstruction of ordinary experience seems to play right into the hands of his anti-realist and skeptical opponents, and therefore he concludes his discussion by reminding us that “the objects encountered in both the appropriate and inappropriate attitudes are real.”49 He then spends the bulk of his commentary on this book defending Nyāya realism. Nyāya-bhāṣya under 4.2.4–17 defends the existence of coherent wholes, which exist beyond the conglomeration of their parts. Nyāya-bhāṣya under 4.2.18–25 defends the existence of atoms, which are the basic units of his realist conception of the universe.
We will focus upon Nyāya-bhāṣya under 4.2.26–3750, which is, as before, a response to an apparent Mādhyamika Buddhist, who puts forth the following argument:
1. If there were real objects of cognition, then we would be able to determine the real nature of such objects simply by reflection upon cognition.
2. But we cannot determine the real nature of objects simply by reflection upon cognition.
3. Therefore, cognitions as of real external objects are simply false.
The challenger clarifies this argument with an analogy that naturally follows from the anti-substantival arguments of the previous sections: When we critically examine the (p. 222) threads of a cloth, one by one, we find that all that exist are the threads, and there is no real object that corresponds to the cognition as of a cloth. The cognition of a cloth is simply an error. Similarly, when we critically examine cognition itself, any real object outside of cognition is nowhere to be found.51 This argument is typically taken to represent some kind of idealism or anti-realism, though it may be taken to support skepticism as well, as both skeptics and idealists minimally share the motivation of refuting realism by illustrating the difficulties of extracting the objects of cognition from cognition itself. And insofar as Vātsyāyana’s entire response is a defense of a baseline realism, it pushes back against both kinds of opponents.
Vātsyāyana’s initial response—which echoes strategies made elsewhere in the Commentary—is to charge the skeptical challenger with self-refutation.52 If one holds that “critical examination” occurs, one cannot also hold that the objects of cognition are entirely false. Indeed, the goal of “critical examination” is veridical awareness. As such, “critical examination” is simply akin to the functioning of knowledge sources. And as the legitimacy of any thesis within systematic inquiry or debate is governed by the normative status produced by knowledge sources, it is impossible to put forth the claim that all things are unreal, which would undermine the status of knowledge sources, and thus support for any claim whatever.
It is here that the challenger suggests that “the notion of knowledge sources and their objects is akin to dreaming,” where “although there are no real objects, there is simply the conception of such.”53 This example forcefully illustrates the way in which an entire system, so to speak, could exist with its own inner consistency, and yet be entirely fallacious. There would indeed be cognition in such a scenario, but the objects of cognition would all be false. By analogy, so too is the idea that our apparently reliable sources of cognition inform of us of a world of stable, independent objects. The use of dreams to motivate skepticism is a well-established feature of philosophical reflection, from Zhuangzi to Descartes.54 It is an enduring, ubiquitous example of the possibility of systematically misleading erroneous cognitive states. And yet, Vātsyāyana will startlingly make use of the problem of dreams to set forth a powerful defense of his epistemology, realism, and union of realism with the therapeutic aspects of his philosophy. Vātsyāyana demands that the challenger substantiate his view that dream objects are unreal. Unsurprisingly, the response is that such objects disappear upon waking, indicating that they are insubstantial. This concession is enough to provide the basis for a number of arguments from parasitism meant to illustrate that without a ground-level commitment to some kind of realism, there is no way to account for (i) the distinction between error and knowledge, (ii) the causal conditions which allow for varied states of cognition, (iii) the nature of error, or (iv) the process of coming from ignorance to knowledge. We will consider these arguments in order.
(i) The very example of dreaming presupposes the waking state. Specifically, it presupposes that in the waking state, we do have veridical apprehension of objects, as it is against this background that the disappearance of dream objects upon waking is evidence that they are unreal. Thus, the notion of unreality or (p. 223) error—the absence of reality regarding some object or cognitive presentation—must be rooted in some real objects or veridical apprehension against which it is determined. The distinction between dreams and waking awareness (hence error and veridical apprehension) upon which the objector’s analogy rests, would be undermined by his very thesis, rendering it ineffective.55
(ii) Dreams take various forms; sometimes they are fearful, sometimes pleasing, and so on. The challenger, who accepts that dreams exist, should give an account of why the contents of dreams vary. The only appropriate response is that different dreams have different causal conditions, which requires such causal conditions to be real. They cannot be fictitious.56 Likewise, illusions and visual tricks have distinct causal conditions by which they are produced. A mirage in the distance is produced by the influence of heat upon the air near the ground. There are real causal networks by which illusion and the like are generated, and reflecting on such networks helps us understand why error occurs and in what conditions it flourishes. If veridical awareness and error were all the same, then there would be no reason for illusion to arise in certain situations and not others.57
(iii) Error states, like dreams, depend on the content of prior cognition to function. The content of dreams is gleaned from waking experience. I mistakenly think I see a friend within a dream because I have prior experience of that friend in waking life. Likewise, I can mistakenly see a man while visually targeting a post in the distance if only I possess the concept “man.” Error is the mistaken ascription of some qualifier or property to something targeted by cognition. But I could never misapply a concept that I do not possess. And, as concepts are generated by experience, we need successful cognitive engagement with objects of experience to make sense of the content of error itself. Moreover, to mistakenly take x to be F, there must also be some x that is the intentional object of my cognitive state, which I mistakenly take to be F. Thus, given error’s “dual nature” (NyS 4.2.37), it targets and combines two separate things (seeing “this” as “that”). While the combination is a mistake, there must be some real thing that I get wrong (“this”) and some concept I truly possess (“that”), which I am capable of mistakenly projecting.58
(iv) Finally, to conclude the analogy, when we arise from sleep, waking cognition floods our awareness and dream contents are recognized as false. Thus, not only is waking experience required as a causal and conceptual basis for dream experience, but it is required to account for the cognitive improvement that occurs upon waking. By analogy, veridical awareness is not only required as a causal and conceptual basis for error, but to account for the fact that false cognition is capable of being corrected and rectified. If there is any question of being improved by cognitive success, there must be veridical awareness that stands above and ameliorates the vices born of error.59 I would suggest that in this final aspect of his argument, Vātsyāyana stands with Plato in recognizing that insofar as philosophy has a therapeutic function, to make us better, it requires some kind of realism, some kind of friction with reality by which the normative judgments pertaining to noetic health or illness may be properly settled. The dream ends when we wake up.
(p. 224) 5. Conclusion: Vātsyāyana’s Legacy
Vātsyāyana’s influence on Nyāya—and through Nyāya’s status as arguably the leading voice of Indian realism, on Indian philosophy in general—is significant and enduring. His consistent defense of metaphysical realism across various fronts, including his defense of an enduring substantial self, helps to set the stage for many of the most fecund and important debates in Indian philosophy, throughout its history. He is one of the earliest systematic thinkers who provides a compelling vision of epistemological refinement as undergirding the good life—a vision which is taken up not only by Naiyāyikas, but other thinkers, including their Buddhist adversaries. While his logical developments are still somewhat rudimentary compared to the revolutions ushered in by Dignāga and those who follow in his wake, his analyses of knowledge sources that center on causal stories and success conditions become standard for Nyāya and a model for many Indian epistemologists. The anti-skeptical strategy that he pioneers, which combines pragmatic entitlement to blemish-free cognition with charges of self-contradiction directed at the skeptic, become the main vehicle for responses to skepticism within Nyāya, up to and through the “new” period inaugurated by Udayana and Gaṅgeśa. His interpretation of Nyāya-sūtra 2.1.19, which eschews the foundationalism that lies in the surface of the text for a nuanced “coherentism” based on inter-pramāṇic support, is a decisive moment in the history of Nyāya, setting a trajectory that distinguishes it from the foundationalism of its fellow Hindu realists in the Mīmāṃsā camp. Finally, with his multifaceted arguments from parasitism, he takes a fairly simple self-refutation strategy aimed at the skeptic and develops it into a sophisticated series of arguments meant to illustrate that some kind of commitment to realism is the inescapable starting point for inquiry and analysis.
Reflecting in the broadest way, historically and globally, it is fair to say that the combined achievement of Gautama and Vātsyāyana belongs on the shortlist of world classics in philosophy.
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(1.) Vātsyāyana does recognize earlier Nyāya thinkers including those who offered commentaries or reflections on some portions of the Nyāya-sūtras (see, e.g., his comments on NyS 1.1.32 and 2.1.20), but, as suggested by Matilal, he was probably the first to offer a commentary on the entire text. See B. K. Matilal, Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, A History of Indian Literature, vol. 6, fasc. 2 (Weisbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1977), 80.
(2.) As a tradition of thought, “Nyāya” is often translated as the “Logic School”; “nyāya” is a rule or method of reasoning that centers on the use of knowledge sources, and that Vātsyāyana identifies with a five-part “syllogism.” The Nyāya school is largely devoted to the employment and refinement of such methods of reasoning.
(3.) Oberhammer argues that Vātsyāyana’s lasting influence is largely felt in his articulation of Nyāya as a unified system that integrates metaphysical/soteriological inquiry into fundamental topics like selfhood with critical methodological elements like epistemology, dialectics, and rational disputation, allowing the latter an equal place at the table. See Gerhard R. F. Oberhammer, “Pakṣilasvāmin’s Introduction to His Nyāyabhāṣya,” Asian Studies (Philippines) 2, no. 3 (1964): 302–322. Ganeri argues that “Vātsyāyana’s systematizing idea is that the three strands out of which the Nyāya system is formed—theory of knowledge, study of critical inquiry, and art of debate—can be brought together into a single discipline.” See Jonardon Ganeri, Philosophy in Classical India: The Proper Work of Reason (London: Routledge 2001), 15. For an overview of other treatments of Vātsyāyana’s articulation of the self-conception of Nyāya, see Karin Preisendanz, “Debate and Independent Reasoning vs. Tradition: On the Precarious Position of Early Nyāya,” in Harānandalaharī: Volume in Honour of Professor Minoru Hara on His Seventieth Birthday, ed. R. Tsuchida and A. Wezler, pp. 221–251 (Reinbek: Inge Wezler, 2000), 222–223.
(4.) Vātsyāyana, Commentary on Nyāya (Nyāyabhāṣya), ed. Anantalal Thakur (New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, Nyāyacaturgranthikā, vol. 1, 1997), 8 and 52 (under NyS 1.1.3 and 1.2.20 respectively). This work will be cited as Commentary hereafter. On occasion, I will use the abbreviation NysBh for the Nyāya-bhāṣya and NyS for the Nyāya-sūtra.
(5.) “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the bulk of the succeeding commentaries on the first sūtra is an attempt to unpack this sentence and to restate it in its fullest and most rigorous generality,” Bruce M. Perry, An Introduction to the Nyāyacaturgranthikā: With English Translations, PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1995, Publication No. AAT 9532256), 5; also see pp. 119–181.
(6.) Given its importance for Vātsyāyana, pramāṇa will be one of the few terms that occasionally remain untranslated throughout this chapter. Typically, it is translated in the following sorts of phrases: “means of veridical cognition,” “reliable cognitive instrument,” and “accredited means of knowing.” My preferred translation will be “knowledge source.”
(7.) Translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.
(8.) Nyāya-sūtra 1.1.3.
(13.) In response to an interlocutor who argues that inference is unreliable, as examples abound of mistaken inferences, Vātsyāyana responds that inferential cognition does not misfire; rather, people who attempt to infer based on faulty grounds do not actual infer at all. “The examples you cite are not instances of deviant inferences, but rather the mistaken notion that there is an inference where there is none… the fault is with the person attempting to make an inference (on faulty grounds) and not with inference itself” (Commentary, 80–81; under NyS 2.1.38). Discussing reasons or evidence (hetu) put forth in support of an argument, he makes further use of this disjunctive method of analysis: “A pseudo-reason is not a reason at all, as it is lacks the proper relation with the thing to be proven” (Commentary, 33; under NyS 1.1.37). Further, “There are things that lack the characteristics of reasons and are thus are non-reasons (ahetavaḥ), yet they appear to be reasons owing to similarity; these are pseudo-reasons” (Commentary, 42; under NyS 1.2.5).
(14.) Commentary, 38 (under NyS 1.1.41). Also see Commentary, 5 (under NyS 1.1.1): “Definitive ascertainment is veridical cognition, the product of pramāṇas” (nirṇayas tattva-jñānaṁ pramāṇānāṁ phalam).
(15.) For a discussion of Nyāya’s two-tiered epistemology which ranges beyond its development in Vātsyāyana, see Stephen Phillips, Epistemology in Classical India: The Knowledge Sources of the Nyāya School (New York and London: Routledge, 2012), chap. 1.
(17.) Commentary, 9 and 16 (under NyS 1.1.3 and 1.1.10). For more extensive discussion of action and motivation in early Nyāya, see Chris Framarin, Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2009), chap. 6.
(18.) Jonardon Ganeri, The Lost Age of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 123.
(20.) Commentary, 15 (under NyS 1.1.9). He also summarizes Nyāya’s metaphysical holdings according to the Vaiśeṣika categories in Commentary, 75 (under NyS 2.1.34). For robust discussion of the central importance of liberation for Nyāya’s early commentators, including Vātsyāyana, see Perry, Introduction to the Nyāyacaturgranthikā, 29–81.
(27.) See Piotr Balcerowicz, “When Yoga Is Not Yoga: The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika tradition and the Artha-śāstra,” in World View and Theory in Indian Philosophy, ed. Piotr Balcerowicz, pp. 173–245 (Delhi: Manohar, 2012).
(32.) The Nyāya-sūtra is the product of a period of Indian thought where philosophical investigation and competitive dialectics are insufficiently distinguished. Sūtras 4.2.50–51 claim that even those dubious debate styles that focus on victory as opposed to the dispassionate discovery of truth may be employed for the sake of protecting the truth from obscuration by roguish debaters. For an examination of some of the tensions in this regard, see Hugh Nicholson, “The Shift from Agonistic to Non-Agonistic Debate in Early Nyāya,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 38 (2009): 75–95.
(35.) Ernest Sosa, “The Raft and the Pyramid,” in Epistemology: An Anthology, ed. Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim, pp. 134–153 (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 134.
(36.) See B. K. Matilal, Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 59–61 for further discussion of Vātsyāyana’s use of the kāraka grammatical categories in this argument.
(37.) This section of the sūtras has an obvious connection to Nāgārjuna’s refutation of pramāṇa epistemology in his Dispeller of Disputes (Vigrahavyāvartanī), vv. 31–51. See Jan Westerhoff, The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 30–35. The direction of influence is unclear, however, since both Nyāya-sūtra 2.1.17–20 and passages in the Vigrahavyāvartanī seem to presuppose knowledge of each other. Matilal accounts for this by suggesting that the final redaction of the Nyāya-sūtra occurred in the lifetime of Nāgārjuna. See Matilal, Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, 78. Bronkhorst has made a compelling case in support of an alternative thesis, that this section of the Nyāya-sūtra, originally directed against Sarvāstivāda Buddhism, was known to Nāgārjuna and the object of his refutation. Later, it was influentially interpreted by Vātsyāyana as itself being a response to Nāgārjuna’s attack. See Johannes Bronkhorst, “Nāgārjuna and the Naiyāyikas,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 13, no. 2 (1985): 107–132.
(40.) Some have argued that this was indeed the original meaning of the sūtra. See Mark Siderits, “The Madhyamaka Critique of Epistemology I,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 8 (1980): 307–335, here 322.
(41.) The Nyāya-sūtras themselves do not explicitly consider all four lemmas of Nāgārjuna’s refutation in the Vigrahavyāvartinī (VV). It is only with the completion of this portion of Vātsyāyana’s commentary that they are all represented.
Infinite regress (VV 31–2): NyS 2.1.17.
Postulation (VV 33): NyS 2.1.18.
Self-support of each pramāṇa (VV 40–1): The “foundationalist” interpretation of NyS 2.1.19 considered and rejected by Vātsyāyana.
Inter-pramāṇic support (VV 42–50): the “coherentist” interpretation of NyS 2.1.19 accepted by Vātsyāyana.
(42.) In short, this principle holds that an instrument, specified to the appropriate level of detail, cannot act upon itself. For discussion of this principle, see Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 46–47, 96–97, 225–226.
(45.) I have noticed two accounts in recent literature that echo Vātsyāyana’s pragmatic strategy. One is provided in William Alston, The Reliability of Sense Perception (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993), 120–140. Alston speaks of the “practical rationality” of prima facie trust in our common “doxastic practices” despite the fact that we are ultimately incapable of non-circularly evaluating them from the outside. He underscores that we must avail ourselves of something after all, since “we can’t move a step without trusting the deliverances of one or more of these sources” (124). Further, given that our various knowledge sources provide “significant self-support” (138), (akin to what we have called “inter-pramāṇic confirmation”) there is some evidence for their reliability beyond the mere default trust granted on pragmatic grounds. Another is provided by David Enoch and Joshua Schester, “How Are Basic Belief-Forming Methods Justified?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 76, no. 3 (May 2008): 547–579. Enoch and Schester note that various basic belief-forming methods “are our only relevant hope for successfully engaging in some extremely important projects” (553) and as such “we are justified in employing [them] antecedently of holding any justified belief concerning [them]” (554).
(47.) The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes, vol. 2, Bollingen series 71 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 1595.
(48.) I’d like to remark briefly on a concern advanced in contemporary scholarship, that minimally there are significant tensions between the pramāṇa epistemology and the professed realism of Vātsyāyana and those Naiyāyikas who follow him. One formulation of this concern is mentioned in passing by Ganeri (who traces them to J. N. Mohanty): “Philosophical projects that begin by describing privileged sources of knowledge and then declaring that what there is what can be known by way of them have a familiar habit of collapsing into idealism.” Jonardon Ganeri, “Review of Epistemology of Perception: Gaṅgeśa’s Tattvacintāmaṇi, by Stephen H. Phillips and N.S. Ramanuja Tatacharya, Journal of the American Oriental Society 127, no. 3 (2007): 349–354, quotation 353. If knowledge sources are defined a priori, and only their outputs are considered knowledge, it seems that Nyāya is not allowing the world to dictate the nature of reality, so to speak. We can see, however, that this line of criticism is blunted by recognizing Vātsyāyana’s particularist methodology. Pramāṇa identification is not based on a priori privileging of certain putative knowledge sources; it is rather the product of long reflection upon entrenched epistemic practice. Vātsyāyana exhibits a willingness to consider and critique alternative knowledge sources in the Commentary on the early portions of Nyāya-sūtra, Book 2, Section 2. Typically, he argues that competitor knowledge sources are either unfit or reducible to subspecies of the four types of knowledge source that are already accepted. Finally, Vātsyāyana argues that should someone contend that there are objects that exist beyond the purview of our acknowledged knowledge sources, she would have to appeal to her sources of information, opening up inquiry into these putative pramāṇa candidates. No one has been able to do this in a way that establishes new knowledge sources types, he alleges (Commentary, 66; under NyS 2.1.19). This denial may be seen as an empirical finding, not a conceptual truth.
An allied criticism is voiced by Siderits, “Madhyamaka Critique,” 332–333, who argues that “what [Vātsyāyana’s pramāṇa epistemology] gives us is at best a description of the sorts of ontological commitment which our epistemic practices require” but it is incapable of supporting the claim that “any of the sorts of ontological commitment which these practices require corresponds to the ‘ultimate nature of reality’.” Since the bedrock of Vātsyāyana’s pramāṇa epistemology is particular instances of apparently pramāṇa–generated cognition, there is no way to step outside of the system to demonstrate that the knowledge sources gain purchase on external reality. As such, while Vātsyāyana’s pramāṇa epistemology may provide a reasonable methodology to establish rules for epistemic justification in harmony with our entrenched practices, it is not capable of supporting a realism of the kind to which Vātsyāyana aspires.
There is a core insight here that is inescapable: on Vātsyāyana’s methodology, our particular knowledge sources do circumscribe our range of engagement with the world. We cannot stand outside of them to critique them wholesale or determine how well they match up with the world. But it is one thing to circumscribe the range of cognitive engagement and another thing to independently determine its content with no help from the “outside.” A realist may recognize the former without being forced to take the extra step to the substantial anti-realism encompassed by the latter. Moreover, as stressed by Vātsyāyana from the beginning of the Commentary, and enshrined in his reflections on the famous “I touch what I saw” argument of Nyāya-sūtra 3.1.1, we have multiple pramāṇas, and in cases of perception, multiple modalities within one pramāṇa type. These often support each other, converging on the same objects and same facts: I see smoke in the distance, inferring that there is a fire, which is corroborated by a neighbor’s testimony that indeed there is a house on fire, which I further see for myself as I approach the source of smoke. This inter-pramāṇic support suggests that there is indeed friction between our knowledge sources and the “object” side of the cognitive relation. Finally, Vātsyāyana separately offers a number of arguments, discussed at length in section 4 below, to the effect that some kind of baseline realism must be the starting point for any inquiry into cognition in the first place. Perhaps, as Siderits contends in the passage cited, Vātsyāyana can at best suggest that such realism must be assumed. Vātsyāyana, at least, takes it to be demonstrated. Even if it is demonstrated, however, these latter arguments support a fairly non-robust, generic realism to start. And indeed, it is consistent with Vātsyāyana’s epistemology for such a realism to be pluralist as well, so long as the pluralism is based on recognizing that the same object or fact may be encountered in various ways owing to varied modes of cognitive engagement, without necessarily being in contradiction with each other.
(54.) See Ernest Sosa, A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2, for the argument that the argument from dreams is in fact the most powerful of the skeptic’s arsenal of hypothetical situations owing to its modal proximity to our lives.
(58.) Commentary, 275 and 276 (under NyS 4.2.34, 4.2.36, and 4.2.36, respectively). See Matthew R. Dasti, “Parasitism and Disjunctivism in Nyāya Epistemology,” Philosophy East and West 62, no. 1 (Jan. 2012): 1–15, here 3–7 and Anand Jayaprakash Vaidya, “Nyāya Perceptual Theory: Disjunctivism or Anti-Individualism,” Philosophy East and West 63, no. 4 (2013): 562–585, here 562–578, for more extensive exploration of this notion of the asymmetric dependence of error upon veridical cognition and comparative engagement with analogous positions in contemporary epistemology. See Joel Feldman, “Vasubandhu’s Illusion Argument and the Parasitism of Illusion Upon Veridical Experience,” Philosophy East and West 55.4 (Oct. 2005): 529–541, for critical examination of Vātsyāyana’s arguments from parasitism in relation to the idealism put forth by his likely contemporary, the Buddhist Vasubandhu. Feldman argues that the parasitism arguments do succeed in refuting Vasubandhu, though they do not decisively refute idealism more generally.