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Last time I expressed my gratitude and praise for Matthew Dasti and Stephen Phillips’s much-needed recent selective translation of the Nyāya Sūtras and commentaries. I stand by all of it – and also noted that the book drives me crazy.

Why? Dasti and Phillips made two decisions that I think are characteristic of an analytic approach to Indian texts. One was to publish selections and excerpts  – probably the right choice, as discussed last time. The second one, however, was to publish those selections entirely out of order.

When I taught Nyāya from Gangopadhyaya’s more difficult translation, I simply had the students read the commentary on the first ten sūtras, sūtras I.i.1-10. These provide a fairly succinct introduction to the Nyāya school in its own terms: the ultimate purpose of Nyāya philosophical reasoning, the way the reasoning leads there, the core idea of pramāṇas (reliable sources of knowledge) and what the pramāṇas are. But in the Dasti-Phillips translation, the first two sūtras – the self-described point of Nyāya – don’t appear until chapter 8, near the end of the book. The commentators’ introductory material from before those sūtras appears in the first Dasti-Phillips chapter, along with the following six sūtras (I.i.3-8), but sūtras I.i.1-2 themselves are excised from this natural continuity even though they appear later in the book. The next sūtra, I.i.9, appears in a different chapter entirely (DP chapter 5), and the one after that, I.i.10, appears in the chapter before it, chapter 4. If I wanted my students to learn just this relatively short part of the text in the order the Naiyāyikas intended, I would need to make them jump around chapter 1, then chapter 8, then chapter 1 again, then chapter 5, and chapter 4.

So I don’t make my students do that, not with this text. Instead I proceed topically, which the book does as well. The problem is that I don’t find Dasti and Phillips’s own organization of topics to work well. It seems to me that the Nyāya discussion of self is based above all on acknowledging a whole that is not reducible to its parts (in rebuttal to the sort of Buddhist position articulated in the Milindapañhā). But the discussion of parts and wholes is itself split between DP chapters 3 and 5 while the self is in DP chapter 4. So when I try to assign a topical discussion of the self, my students now have to muddle through three different ways of organizing the topic: mine, Dasti’s and Phillips’s, and the original. Likewise on logical standards of discussion and debate: the discussion of the fallacy of equivocation in DP chapter 8 belongs naturally with the other fallacies in chapter 9, and DP chapter 9’s discussion of debate spells out the discussion of inference in DP chapter 1.

So this translation, unfortunately, frustrates me and my students. I say that in spite of its many merits as a translation; there are good reasons why I continue to use it, exclusively, as my source on Nyāya, and not Gangopadhyaya or the selections in Radhakrishnan-Moore or Sarma. It is the best introduction to Nyāya that exists in English. I would still love to see a new edition or revision of the book that was in a more coherent order – especially, one that left the sūtras in the order their authors (including the commentators) intended.

Why would I like to see the sūtras in the authors’ intended order? There is a philosophically interesting question here that goes beyond the organization of undergraduate textbooks. It has to do with how, and why, we read the ideas of philosophers from times and places different from our own – and perhaps from our own as well. I said before that Dasti and Phillips are taking an analytical approach, in part because I remember the analytic philosopher who once said to a friend, “if it’s an interesting argument, we don’t care whether it was found in the writings of David Hume or on a piece of pasta.” It seems to me that such a view is implicit in this translation’s organization: we are interested in arguments taken individually, more than in any worldview that they might add up to. The organization suggests adaptation for comparative courses on philosophical topics: we could extract individual arguments about self in isolation from other arguments about parts and wholes, let alone about reliable means of knowledge.

I have not generally found such an approach helpful. I think philosophical worldviews tend to make sense much more as wholes. Such a holism can be greatly overdone, and indeed in religious studies it is overdone all the time. Religionists often treat worldviews as such seamless webs that the distances between them can never be crossed, and so the idea that we ourselves might learn from thinkers of the past is viewed with bemused puzzlement: never the twain shall meet. I find analytic approaches preferable to that. Still, I think it is hard to learn from another tradition’s argument taken in isolation when that argument is directed at people whose assumptions are also very different from ours – as they must be for people from a millennium before us. I think we learn more from them when we understand those very assumptions and unstated premises; overall, I think I learned more from Śāntideva’s assumptions than from his arguments. That is why I want to understand a coherent worldview, and why I want my students to do so as well, to the extent possible. And that makes me more predisposed to a teaching approach that looks to read past authors on the terms they set out themselves (like reading Nyāya Bhāṣya I.i.1-10 in its entirety in order).

I suspect that Dasti and Phillips have a different take on the understanding of distant philosophers and their arguments and assumptions, so I’m not going to hold my breath for a differently ordered translation. But in a venue like this, I think such differences are worth airing.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.