Arguing the Nyaya Way: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Western-style rhetoric and Aristotelian syllogism find a fascinating counterpart in the model for argumentation and debate outlined in the Nyaya Sutra.  I was particularly intrigued with the fundamental differences between Western rhetorical theory and Nyaya theory with respect to the purpose of rhetoric and argumentation.  From the early Greeks onward, Western writers have seen the purpose of rhetoric as persuasion, particularly applicable to political and legal arguments (and more recently, consumerism).  The sets of persuasive tools available to the rhetorician do not in themselves necessarily embody ethical and moral concerns.  Style and delivery, Peter Ramus’s declarations for rhetoric’s central core, serve deception as well as truth.  But even if arrangement, reason and invention are included under rhetoric’s banner, the problem of ethical use still persists.  Where Western writers have addressed this perennial challenge by either condemning rhetoric as more trick than art or by insisting that ethics are inseparable from rhetoric, the Nyaya rhetorical philosophy approaches the issue from quite a different angle.

At the most basic level, Nyaya argumentation differs from Western rhetoric in the former’s emphasis upon creating fruitful arguments that result in a “knowing episode” between the conversants.  By contrast, Keith Lloyd characterizes most Aristotelian dialectic as what Nyaya terms “wrangling”—debate with victory as its goal (374).  Victory is attained when the thinking of the hearer is overlain with the conclusions of the rhetor.  One side wins and the other concedes.  Not victory, but consensus is Nyaya’s objective, a harmonious “seeing-together” that values commonality, seeks to create order from chaos, and may even include self-abnegation (374-5).

Nyaya achieves these results by starting from a fundamental belief that right perception is possible for humans, and that the journey to truth follows a path from knowledge to knowledge through inference and analogy, while simultaneously sweeping aside the dead-end diversions of human fears and desires.  Unlike Western methods that separate theories of logic from practical living, Nyaya applies well to situations of direct practical involvement.  Lloyd offers the example of a doctor who must decide from several available treatments for a patient’s particular set of symptoms (377). Due to inherent contingencies, such a decision is rarely a straight-line computation.  Nyaya’s emphasis on pattern recognition, analogy, and inferential perception, along with its flexible amenability to some level of probability, recommend this method of reasoning to such circumstances.

Balancing Nyaya’s orientation towards harmony and its case-specific, analogic style, Nyaya philosophy recognizes that not all argumentation will end in fruitful consensus.  This, I think, is where Nyaya finds peace with the issues Western rhetoric so groans under, i.e., the ethics of the rhetor.  Nyaya categorizes debate into three types: helpful, honest debate (both sides seek truth); hindering, tricky debate (win by fair or foul means); and destructive debate (demolish the opponent utterly) (368). Using this framework for understanding debate, the hearer becomes more responsible for how he or she receives the rhetor’s argument.  Surely, one would assume a different mindset when involved in a helpful, honest debate than when party to a destructive one.  Where truth and consensus are the goal, ego and personal agenda find less purchase.  Conversely, armed with the foreknowledge that a rhetor/debater intends to win at all costs, the hearer would understand that such a motive also affects the value and values of an argument.  Anyone who has ever listened to a salesman or a politician trashing the competition or the opposition knows that what parades as facts in the discussion can be highly colored with the speaker’s intent.  The old adage ‘caveat emptor’ applies to buying a line of reasoning as well as to anything.

While the Nyaya method of rhetoric and argumentation feels overly loose to my Western mind steeped in the desire for deductive conclusions, and Nyaya’s accent on consensus seems a bit impractical in a society such as ours that so values winning, I find Nyaya’s differences refreshing and challenging.  After all, to confine oneself to only one way of thinking blinds one to possibilities that might be available through wider viewpoints, like a horse wearing blinders who cannot see the food bin beside him, unlike an owl who can rotate his head almost 360° to see what lies in all directions.

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