The Inclusion Problem in Critical Thinking: The Case of Indian Philosophy

by Anand Jayprakash Vaidya

  1. The Problem

 For many, if not most, philosophy departments, the bread-and-butter courses they offer include the history of philosophy, ethics, and critical thinking. Most of us, at some time or another, have had to teach a course in one of those areas. Rather than design a whole new textbook or syllabus by ourselves, we often choose to adopt a common text that is suggested to us, or one we are familiar with from our own training. Focusing on critical thinking, it is not uncommon to adopt one of the standard texts, such as Patrick Hurley’s or Lewis Vaughn’s. Both of these texts are well reviewed and contain lots of good material for teaching the standard topics, such as argument identification, diagramming arguments, validity, soundness, truth tables, basic propositional logic, and informal fallacy identification.

However, neither of these texts, and most of the other texts in the category of critical thinking, succeed in mentioning or including any references to or sources for material from outside the western tradition. This could leave a student with the impression that while Socrates, Aristotle, John Venn, and George Boole all contributed to the development of logic and critical thinking, no non-western thinker had anything to say about these matters.

This would not be a problem if it were true that non-western philosophers had nothing to say about matters pertaining to logic and critical thinking. And it would not be such a problem even if they did have something to say, if it were also true that logic and critical thinking were not important parts of an education in philosophy and the humanities in general. But it is a problem, because there are many contributions from non-western traditions, such as Arabic philosophy, Chinese philosophy, and Indian philosophy, and often we sell the importance of philosophy by pointing to critical thinking. In this post, I will try to briefly characterize one location where one can find an important kind of contribution to critical thinking that is relevant to contemporary issues concerning critical-thinking education and its future direction.

  1. The Setup

In his, Not By Skill Alone: The Centrality of Character to Critical Thinking, Harvey Siegel (1993)[1] defends the character view against the skill view.

  • The skill view holds that critical thinking is exhausted by the acquisition and proper deployment of critical thinking skills.
  • The character view holds that critical thinking involves the acquisition and proper deployment of specific skills, as well as the acquisition of specific character traits, dispositions, attitudes, and habits of mind. These components are aspects of the “critical spirit.”

With this contrast frame, we can ask the following question: Do non-western traditions of debate and discussion have anything to say about what skills are important for dialogical investigation, or what character traits are important? Since there is an abundance of literature on the issue of non-western logic, I will forgo discussion of that area (besides, most instructors don’t even talk about non-classical logic in an intro critical thinking and logic course). Rather, I will focus on the character view and some historical sources relevant to it.

  1. Carakasaṃhitā

 At section 3.8[2] of the classical Indian handbook of Ayurveda, the author, Acharya Charaka, says the following:

One who has acquired the knowledge (given by the authoritative text) based on various reasons and refuting the opponent’s view in debates, does not get fastened by the pressure of opponent’s arguments nor does he get subdued by their arguments.

And pertaining to the method of discussion, he says the following:

Discussion with specialists: promotes pursuit and advancement of knowledge, provides dexterity, improves power of speaking, illumines fame, removes doubt in scriptures, if any, by repeating the topics, and creates confidence in case there is any doubt, and brings forth new ideas. The ideas memorized in study from the teacher, will become firm when applied in (competitive) discussion.

 And then he offers an important distinction between two different kinds of discussion, and how they should be carried out. 

Discussion with specialists is of 2 types—friendly discussion and hostile discussion. The friendly discussion is held with one who is endowed with learning, understanding and the power of expression and contradiction, devoid of irritability, having uncensored knowledge, without jealousy, able to be convinced and convince others, enduring and adept in the art of sweet conversation. While in discussion with such a person one should speak confidently, put questions unhesitatingly, reply to the sincere questioner with elaborateness, not be agitated with fear of defect, not be exhilarated on defeating the partner, nor boast before others, not hold fast to his solitary view due to attachment, not explain what is unknown to him, and convince the other party with politeness and be cautious in that. This is the method of friendly discussion.

Without a doubt, these passage are in the vicinity of our concern with the “critical spirit” and how it should be carried out.

  1. Milinda-pañha

 The Buddhist tradition also has a lot to offer in the area of critical thinking. The classic dialogue of the Buddhist tradition, Milinda-pañha (Questions for King Milinda), is famous for its discussion of the no-self view central to Buddhism. However, in the following neglected passage, it also appears to capture some of the important ideas found in the Carakasaṃhitā [3]:

Milinda: Reverend Sir, will you discuss with me again?

Nāgasena: If your Majesty will discuss (vāda) as a scholar, well, but if you will discuss as a king, no.

Milinda: How is it that scholars discuss?

Nāgasena: When scholars talk a matter over one with another, then there is a winding up, an unraveling, one or other is convicted of error, and he then acknowledges his mistake; distinctions are drawn, and contra-distinctions; and yet thereby they are not angered. Thus do scholars, O King, discuss.

Milinda: And how do kings discuss?

Nāgasena: When a king, your Majesty, discusses a matter, and he advances a point, if any one differ from him on that point, he is apt to fine him, saying “Inflict such and such a punishment upon that fellow!” Thus, your Majesty, do kings discuss.

Milinda: Very well. It is as a scholar, not as a king, that I will discuss. (MP 2.1.3)

From this passage, we get further elaboration on the kind of discussion known as vāda, which is the friendly discussion found in Carakasaṃhitā. More importantly, though, the passage above also introduces the reader to a very important idea about the nature of a good discussion in classical Indian philosophy. Nāgasena’s says:

When scholars talk a matter over one with another, then there is a winding up, an unraveling, one or other is convicted of error, and he then acknowledges his mistake; distinctions are drawn, and contra-distinctions; and yet thereby they are not angered. (emphasis added)

One reading of this claim is that Nāgasena is pointing out that a good discussion requires not only that certain moves made be “a winding up” and “an unraveling,” but that the persons involved in making those moves have a certain epistemic temper. Participants in a good debate, moreover, have the capacity, and exercise the capacity, to (i) acknowledge mistakes, and (ii) not become angered by the consequences of where the inquiry leads. Nāgasena’s answer to King Milinda suggests that at least Buddhist discussions take the character view as opposed to the skill view. It is not enough to simply know how to “make moves,” “destroy,” or “demolish” an opponent by various techniques. What is central to an honest debate is that a participant must also have a certain attitude and character that exemplify a specific epistemic temper.

  1. Why Is This Important?

I won’t try to answer this question exhaustively. Rather, I will point to an interesting way to see why it is important now by looking at recent work by Jason Baehr (2013)[4] on educating for intellectual virtues.

In his “Educating for Intellectual Virtues,” Baehr goes into an extended examination of what intellectual character virtues are and offers three arguments for the view that education ought to aim at fostering intellectual character virtues such as curiosity, open-mindedness, and intellectual courage. He offers a very important list of contemporary thinkers who help to explain the theoretical nature of intellectual virtues. And he discusses his approach in relation to the approach discussed by Siegel. However, and not by any fault of his own, he does not include discussion of any ideas from outside the western canon. Might it be useful to explore what non-western philosophers had to say about intellectual character? Within the vast literature on classical Indian philosophy, one finds ample discussion of critical thinking both at the skill level and at the critical spirit level. One important place to learn about these contributions is in B. K. Matilal’s (1998) The Character of Logic in India, edited by Jonardon Ganeri and Heeraman Tiwari.

For now, it is should be clear that both of the passages above could be used to teach critical thinking students what critical thinking is about, should one agree with the character view. What could be taught is that critical thinking is not only about making certain “critical moves” for the purposes of victory over one’s opponent, but that it is also about adopting a certain state of mind about investigation and inquiry. And it is without a doubt that the passage can be adequately compared to a Socratic dialogue, such as Meno, where Socrates is exercising his critical thinking skills. There seems to be no harm in showing students that critical thinking has sources both in western traditions and non-western traditions.

For those attending the APA’s 2016 Pacific Division Meeting, don’t miss out on Stephen Phillips’s presentation on contributions from the Nyāya traditions to logic and critical thinking at the meeting of the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking.

[1] Siegel, H. 1993. “Not by Skill Alone: The Centrality of Character to Critical Thinking.” Informal Logic 25.3: 163-175.

[2] G. Van Loon. 2002. Charaka Saṃhitā: Handbook on Ayurveda. Chaukhambha Orientialia Publishers.

[3] This passage and work comes from Ganeri, J. 2004. “Indian Logic.” In Handbook of the History of Logic. D. Gabbay and J. Woods (eds.). Vol. 1. Elsevier B. V. Publishing.

[4] Baehr, J. “Educating for Intellectual Virtues: From Theory to Practice.” Journal of Philosophy of Education. Vol. 47.2.

Anand Jayprakash Vaidya is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy at San Jose University in California. His interests include the epistemology of intuition, perception and modality, the metaphysics of logic, critical thinking, the capabilities approach to justice, the philosophy of economics, and cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary public philosophy.


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