Knowing, Doing, and Doubting: Nyāya Philosophy

For the philosophers of the Nyāya school, the role of knowledge was to make effective action possible.

Will Buckingham
8 min readFeb 7, 2023

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Image: Edvard Munch, The Sun (1911). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Texts and Woven Threads

The tradition of Nyāya philosophy in India goes back to a text called the Nyāya-sūtra. It is one of the most extensive treatments of the art of reasoning to be found in early Indian philosophy.

The Nyāya-sūtra is a fascinating text, one that explores the relationship between knowing, practical action, and doubt. The various strands in sūtra (the word “sūtra” सूत्र means “thread”) were probably brought together into something resembling the current form around 150 in the Common Era. However, the text almost certainly contains debates, discussions, and ideas that long predate this.

The text as it has come down to us bears the hallmarks of a text that was made to be recited, a part of the oral tradition. It is constructed out of tightly crafted aphorisms that lend it to memorisation and oral transmission.

As for the authorship of the Nyāya-sūtra, it is attributed to a man called Akṣapāda Gautama. If the author existed at all, we don’t know anything about him. Various accounts put his dates around anything from the 6th century BCE to the second century CE when the text reached its current form. The name Akṣapāda means “gazing at the feet.” One colourful suggestion is that this is a reference to how Akṣapāda Gautama spent his days lost in thought, staring at the ground. But there’s no reason to think this is true.

There are many puzzles around the Nyāya-sūtra — how it evolved, when it evolved, who its many authors were, how we can date it. Here, as with so many things, any claims to certain knowledge are unreliable. And it is perhaps appropriate that this is the case. Because these kinds of questions — about what we know, what we think we know, and how reliable our knowledge is — lie at the heart of the Nyāya-sūtra and Nyāya philosophy more broadly.

Knowing and Acting

The question that the Nyāya-sūtra asks is this: how can we know? The word “nyāya” can be translated as something like “right reasoning.” And the Nyāya-sūtra starts by arguing that the…

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Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham