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  • Systematizing Nyāya
  • Matthew R. Dasti
Epistemology in Classical India: The Knowledge Sources of the Nyāya School. By Stephen Phillips. New York and London: Routledge, 2012. Pp. x + 194. isbn 9780415895545.

An ongoing effort, exemplified though happily not exhausted in the work of B. K. Matilal, is to present the best of classical Indian philosophy in a way that speaks to contemporary philosophical concerns, while still being historically and philologically responsible. Epistemology in Classical India: The Knowledge Sources of the Nyāya School by Stephen Phillips is expressly this kind of work. Phillips begins by explaining that his book is “for philosophers and students of philosophy, not for specialists in classical Indian thought” (p. 1). His project is to engage with a range of classical texts and contemporary philosophy, in order to offer the Nyāya theory of knowledge as a coherent system. A welcome feature of his introduction is a defense of this kind of study. He appeals to the nature of philosophical practice in Nyāya, which, over the centuries, defends and develops its central claims, its siddhāntas. Given this, specific Naiyāyikas speak not so much as individuals but as members of the tradition. “Thus,” Phillips claims, “to try to find a single coherent theory, which is admittedly an abstraction from a long series of texts, is in accord with the dominant attitude within Nyāya itself” (p. 1).

We should not misunderstand Phillips’ claim about the intended audience and think that Epistemology in Classical India is merely introductory and of little use to specialists in Indian thought. This book is, in effect, the distilled, coherent summary of decades of Phillips’ work on Nyāya, and on Indian epistemology more generally. This alone makes it relevant to those of us who work in Indian philosophy. When warranted, he also contends with views put forth by leading scholars, advancing the conversation on important matters of interpretation. The last chapter of the book offers the creative and philosophically sensitive argument that Nyāya’s epistemological system avoids many problems recognized in contemporary thought, and is therefore indeed worthy of philosophical consideration. It is not merely a summary of earlier findings but a contribution to the philosophical study of Indian thought.

The book is well structured to support its overall project. It is admirably concise and indeed short. The meat of the book, sans appendixes and supporting materials, is a little over one hundred pages. The endnotes cite relevant primary and secondary literature, filling out the streamlined discussion within the body of the text. In this [End Page 617] way, the book can serve as the basis of a useful program of study. One can, with great profit and without investing an inordinate amount of time, read Phillips’ text, gaining a sense of Nyāya as a developed system, and, where desired, follow up on the literature within the notes, engaging more closely with relevant primary and secondary materials. This would be an ideal way, I opine, for a student or nonspecialist scholar to become proficient in Nyāya epistemology. The endnotes also serve to prevent a not uncommon mode of presentation of the Indian schools for nonspecialists as entirely disengaged from source texts. Phillips’ account of Nyāya as a system of thought is no Platonic form, pristinely floating in heaven and divorced from the muddy ground of textual engagement. Even where he has to think creatively about how Nyāya would engage with problems that were not explicitly handled in the tradition, he looks for proof texts or at least footholds in the original thinkers by which he may ascend to constructive interpretation.

Nyāya Epistemology in Summary

Chapter 1 starts with a short conceptual and historical introduction to Nyāya within the Indian philosophical scene. The only quibble I would have with his short overview is the unqualified characterization of Vaiśeṣika as an atheistic tradition (p. 4). Though the sūtrakāra may have had no use for God, as is well known, Praśastapāda and subsequent Vaiśeṣikas do give a place of privilege to Īśvara, not only as the initiator of the creation cycles, but also as the...