Nyaya, Vaisheshika and Ancient Wisdom…

Lessons from our Past

“You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing, and dance, and write poems, and suffer, and understand, for all that is life”….

-Jiddu Krishnamurti

Nyaya[1] and Vaisheshika [2] are two schools of ancient classical Indian philosophy that emerged between the 6th-century & 2nd-century BC and gradually converged into an integrated Hindu metaphysics and naturalism philosophical framework anchored in the duality of inference and perception.

Nyaya is focused on knowledge (epistemology) and logic.

Vaisheshika is focused on metaphysics and ontology.

They are both spiritual and philosophical.

Integrating our experiences and agency (Material World) with abstractions, concepts, and valid knowledge ( Mental World ).

Ways in which we can codify and simplify our complex emergent Material World.

The alchemy of transformation.

An ancient ambition to remove human suffering which unfolds through our ignorance of Reality.

Nyaya provided a pathway to enlightenment and eternal life through uncovering via debate (vada)[3] knowledge ( knowing the truth).

It was a similar higher-order aspiration to that of 20th Century Economist and Social & Political Philosopher Friedrich Hayek[4] as outlined in The Knowledge Society and his two 1945 American Economic Review essays — The Meaning of Competition and The Use of Knowledge in Society[5].

Nyāya Sūtras

The sanskrit text composed by Akṣapāda Gautama[6] from the Nyaya school of Hindu philosophy was called Nyāya Sūtras[7].

5 books — each with 2 Chapters — consisting of 528 aphoristic sutras that contained rules of logic, reason, epistemology, and metaphysics.

An approach not dissimilar to Western Philosophy — Aristotle’s The Organon[8] (c. 330 BC), Euclid’s Elements[9] (c300 BC) and Benedict De Spinoza’s [10]— Ethics (1777 AD).

It was a way to distinguish between Good Reason & Bad Reason and separate valid knowledge.

Invalid knowledge involves memory, doubt, error, and hypothetical argument.

“Bad reasoning, as well as good reasoning, is possible; and this fact is the foundation of the practical side of logic”…

- Charles Sanders Peirce

The Nyaya school of Hindu philosophy outlines four valid means of Knowledge: Perception (Pratyaksha), Inference (Anumana), Comparison (Upamana) and Testimony (Shabda).

The primary source of Knowledge Perception is based on our experience, agency and our capacity for Human Sensemaking[11].

Embracing our five human senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.

The three other forms of Knowledge Inference, Comparison and Testimony all depend on the primary source of Perception.

“The elements of every concept enter into logical thought at the gate of perception and make their exit at the gate of purposive action; and whatever cannot show its passports at both those two gates is to be arrested as unauthorized by reason” …

– Charles Sanders Peirce

Testimony[12] is reliant on the notion of Trust.

It recognises the role that experts can play in Society given that each one of us has limited time and capacity to know only a small fraction of the facts and truths directly.

The integrity & reliability of the source is important and only “legitimate knowledge” can come from such sources.

Knowledge by testimony also requires symmetry — a knowledgeable & reliable person as the source and that knowledge must also be understood by the person receiving it.

Western Societies & The Legitimation Crisis

The 6 crises of Secular Liberalism and the Legitimation Crisis[13] explored how our modern-day Western civilisation is at a significant crossroads.

We have increasingly subordinated the importance of Ancient Wisdom and other forms of Knowledge (eg. Philosophy, Theology etc…), together with historical stories that illuminate the eternal qualities and nature of our Human Condition (e.g. Greek and Roman Classics) – Classical patricide[14].

The result is HyperNormalisation and a Legitimation Crisis[13].

A World of Clocks but no Clouds[15].

Integrating Ancient Wisdom and other forms of Knowledge

So what are some of the insights that we can apply from Ancient Indian Nyaya and Vaisheshika Philosophy to navigate the 21st Century?

Learning to Learn through embracing and applying Ancient Wisdom to modern-day Reason, Logic and Knowledge.

Nine Lessons from Nyaya and Vaisheshika Philosophy

1. The Material World is Non-Ergodic & Emergent

In Vaisheshika ontology, the concept of a “substance” has a distinct and different meaning from the Western Philosophy of Aristotle, Locke, Kant et al.

Rather than having a “permanency”, it reflects a locus of properties that can “change”.

Nine kinds of substances including Air, Water, Earth, Ether, Light, Time, Space, Self and Time.

Instead of a Classical Static Newtonian World, our Material World is non-ergodic, emergent, and ever-changing.

Reason, logic and knowledge in ancient Indian Philosophy, therefore, need to reflect this ever-changing state, continually retesting our abstraction against Reality.

An Analog World.

2. Integration of our Material World

In Vaisheshika there is the concept of Inherence — the mechanism by which parts come together as a whole.

It recognises the differences between parts & wholes and substances and qualities.

Inherence cannot be reduced.

It’s a fundamental property of Reality.

The process that binds Clouds & Clocks[15].

An ever-present duality between Reductionism & Complexity.

Our Interdependencies.

3. Absence as important as Presence

In Vaisheshika and Nyaya there is a notion of Negation which again is an ontological concept anchored in a Duality.

There must be absence and presence.

Negation can be Absence or Difference.

A is not in B” is Absence

A is not B” is Difference

Absence can be further sub-categorised into Antecedent, Subsequent or Absolute.

A is not yet B” is Antecedent

A is not more B” is Subsequent

A is not here now” is Absolute

In contrast in Western thought, there is a focus on what is Present — a Materialistic perspective.

What is not Present is inferred.

Could Western Philosophical thought embrace this Duality Presence & Absence?

An example being the importance of Negative Capability[16].

An inherent feature of the Human Condition and a form of Negation.

Negative Capability[16] is fundamental to Reason, Logic and Knowledge.

It’s through Open Inquiry, Epistemological Humility and recognising the limits of what we really know (humility is truth) that we edge ever closer to Ground Truths.

4. There is Good & Bad Reason

This difference between modern Western (Cartesianism) and ancient Indian Logic was illustrated in a recent ABC podcast titled — Logic in Indian Philosophy[17] — through a simple example.

Western Logic can have “formal” perfection and be absolute (ie. ergodic, binary, certain).

“All chairs are 50 feet tall, my mother is a chair, therefore my mother is 50 feet tall” — is an example of a sound piece of logical abstraction.

However, in ancient Indian Nyaya philosophy, such an observation would be seen to hold little or no epistemic (knowledge) value simply because it does not tell us anything about our Material World.

Logic is more akin to Scientific Reasoning that integrates Abstraction & Inference with Experience & Perception.

Combining French Rationalism Temples of Reason — with — British Empiricism.

Logic, Sensemaking, Reflexivity and Friction.

Reason is a Quality.

“The scientists from Franklin to Morse were clear thinkers and did not produce erroneous theories. The scientists of today think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane. Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality” …

– Nikola Tesla

5. Valid and Invalid Knowledge

Nyaya philosophy maintains that Invalid Knowledge will eventually be exposed through our Material World practices ( a form of philosophical pragmatism).

“You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality”…

— Ayn Rand

It is through the application of knowledge via our perception, agency and actions in the Material World that Knowledge becomes valid.

Knowledge that aligns with our perception of Reality.

“Truth in philosophy means that concept and external reality correspond”…

— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Learning is creating knowledge and practice tests the truth of knowledge.

6. Reason, Knowledge and Logic begin with Perception, Abduction and our experience & agency in the Material World

In Naya philosophy perception is a two-stage process that begins with a non-conceptual perception by way of contact between our senses with the external object ( a Material World phenomenon) .

We then have a conceptual perception generated by the deployment of concepts that generate a conscious level perception (a Mental World phenomenon).

A Geometry of Concepts.

In The Sensemaking Myth and a new integrated form of Reason… the way we Reason and make sense of the World — sensemaking — was explored comparing 19th & 20th Century Formal Logic, First Order Logic, Zero Order Logic (InfallibilismLow Dimensional Causality Ergodic Discrete) to the Integrated form of Logic (Fallibilism Open InquiryEpistemilogical HumilityHigh Dimensional — Non-Ergodic – Semantic) from US 20th Century Pragmatist Philosopher — Charles Sanders Peirce.

Such an approach begins with abduction, human ideas, experiences and relationships in our complex interconnected Material World (Fallibilism Logic).

In so many ways the work of Charles Sanders Peirce has affinities with the foundational principles of ancient Naya philosophy (a pragmatic form of reasoning).

“Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to…trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibres may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected”…

- Charles Sanders Peirce

7. Perception is to our Material World as to what Inference is to our Mental World

Nyaya and Vaisheshika philosophy integrate Hindu metaphysics and naturalism philosophical framework anchored in inference and perception.

It’s a two-body process — Material World — Experience, Agency, Perception— with — Mental World — Abstraction, Reductionism, Inference.

It’s a shift beyond a Mental Structure form of consciousness that has largely dominated Western thought for +2,000 years.

Reason, Epistemology and Logic are all forms of Embodied Abstraction.

We do not learn from experience.

We learn from reflecting on experience”…

- John Dewey

8. The Material World is complex and knowledge sits across the topology of the Network of Society

In The Knowledge Society… we outlined how Austrian born 20th Century Economist Friedrich Hayek wrote 2 articles for the American Economic Review in 1945 defending an Open Society and providing a counter-argument to the idea of a centrally planned economy.

In his article — The Use of Knowledge in Society he saw the Economy as a complex dynamic emergent system and it was through the creation and application of new & existing knowledge to the challenges we face that we drive human prosperity.

No single agent was able to synthesise a complete picture of the Economy given its complexity.

What was known by a single individual was a small fraction of the total emergent nature of knowledge held by all members of Society.

In other words, the knowledge sits across the topology of the Network.

Ancient Nyaya philosophy understood this principle and its importance in uncovering legitimate knowledge.

Whilst there was no “technology network” or “internet” it was through human relationships, a discourse[18], a Public Sphere, a dialectic[18] and a type of debate called vada that positions around legitimate knowledge could be reached.

A Thesis and Antithesis to arrive at a Synthesis.

A recognition that no single person could be the font of all knowledge.

A recognition of the complexity of our Material World.

A vada debate was anchored in the principles of open inquiry, epistemological humility, a generosity of spirit.

Each party learning from the other.

9. Trust is essential to Knowledge

As outlined in Collective Sensemaking[19] trust is a core foundation of enabling us to make sense of the complex Material World.

Without trust, Collective Sensemaking breaks down and our ability to navigate such a World is compromised.

Trust requires the reliance on others given the sheer volume, scale and complexity of the information available to each one of us and the time & capacity required to generate Knowledge.

Nyaya Philosophy recognises Testimony (Shabda) as one of four forms of legitimate knowledge.

It highlights the cornerstone role that experts can play in Society and the importance of integrity & reliability of the source .

It also recognised that knowledge by testimony also requires a symmetry — a knowledgeable & reliable person as the source , but also that knowledge must be understood by the person receiving it.

As the Knowledge Society[5] evolves driven by increasing fidelity, diffusion[20] & bandwidth and lower & lower costs of communication and collaboration will we shift our approach away from individual experts to networks of trust that harness our Collective Intelligence?

A shift to Liquid Brains.


There are many rich lessons we can apply by integrating Ancient Wisdom into an increasingly globalised World View.

Lessons that will be essential to our capacity to respond to and embrace change.

Our ability to lean into an emergent Reality and learn how to learn as we navigate the 21st Century.


[1] Analytic Philosophy in Early Modern India — https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/early-modern-india/

[2] Doctrine: Vaisheshika and Nyaya — https://iskconeducationalservices.org/HoH/tradition/doctrine-and-scripture/doctrine-vaisheshika-and-nyaya/

[3] In Nyāya philosophy only some debates are worth having — https://psyche.co/ideas/in-nyaya-philosophy-only-some-debates-are-worth-having

[4] Friedrich Hayek — https://psyche.co/ideas/in-nyaya-philosophy-only-some-debates-are-worth-having

[5] The Knowledge Society — https://richardschutte.medium.com/the-knowledge-society-3dac817eca8b

[6] Akṣapāda Gautama — http://tibetanbuddhistencyclopedia.com/en/index.php?title=Akṣapāda_Gautama

[7] Nyāya Sūtras — https://www.britannica.com/topic/Indian-philosophy/The-Nyaya-sutras

[8] The Organon — https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-logic/

[9] Epistemology of Geometry — https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology-geometry/

[10] Baruch Spinoza — https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/

[11] Sensemaking, the core skill for the 21st Century… — sensemaking-the-core-skill-for-the-21st-century-ebc8c679cfe8

[12] Testimony, Belief Transfer, and Causal Irrelevance: Reflections from India’s Nyāya School — https://www.jstor.org/stable/27745135

[13]The 6 crises of Secular Liberalism and the Legitimation Crisis — https://richardschutte.medium.com/the-6-crises-of-secular-liberalism-and-the-legitimation-crisis-b6219bcd813d

[14] Classical patricide — https://newcriterion.com/issues/2021/9/classical-patricide

[15] Clouds & Clocks — https://richardschutte.medium.com/clocks-and-clouds-2889c9586ce3

[16] Negative Capability — https://richardschutte.medium.com/negative-capability-f3bf749a87ec?source=user_profile---------3----------------------------

[17] Logic in Indian Philosophy — https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/philosopherszone/logic-in-indian-philosophy/13312196

[18] Catarina Dutilh Novaes, “The Dialogical Roots of Deduction: Historical, Cognitive, and Philosophical Perspectives on Reasoning” — https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5tZWdhcGhvbmUuZm0vTElUMzQyNjUyMTgwNg/episode/M2UwYmEyZDQtMWFlMS0xMWVjLWE1OGQtNzdkYjMxODIxYzZm?hl=en-AU&ved=2ahUKEwjXy9K30qzzAhXJQ30KHUreBy8QjrkEegQIAhAL&ep=6

[19] Collective Sensemaking — https://richardschutte.medium.com/collective-sensemaking-90826d1cb007

[20] Max Boisot — The city as a complex adaptive system — https://youtu.be/MRHzHmmlmYc



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