The Notion of "Trolling" in Ancient Sanskrit

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[This is a guest post by Varun Khanna]

In the Nyāya Sūtra by Akṣapāda Gautama (composed sometime between the sixth century BCE and the second century CE), a three-fold conception of dialogue is discussed. It appears that at the time this was written, dialectic culture was strong in the Sanskritic world. Thus, the rules of dialogue and debate started being codified by several authors, such as Gautama in his Nyāya Sūtra and Caraka (third century BCE) in his seminal Ayurveda work Caraka Saṁhitā. In Gautama's work, he defines three types of dialogue.

The first is known as vāda, which he defines as "that [discussion] which is based on proper epistemology, reasoning, and path, which is based on the five-fold technique of argumentation, which reaches a final conclusion that is consistent with the doctrine, and which is inclusive of the viewpoints of both discussants is known as vāda" (Nyāya Sūtra 1.2.1). He says "path" here, because any philosophical conclusion was only considered valid if there was a path for achieving or "realizing" it. An abstract or purely theoretical philosophical conclusion was not considered complete. The five-fold technique of argumentation can be learned about here. This type of dialogue could be called "discussion", where the goal of the two discussants is to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion that includes the viewpoints of both parties. The objective is not to win, nor is it to defeat the other person, but rather is to reach a logically acceptable conclusion together with the other person. Both discussants must come into the discussion with an open mind, and must be willing to learn from the other. There are no opponents here, only friends.
 
The second type of dialogue is known as jalpa (Nyāya Sūtra 1.2.2), which can be translated in this context as "debate". In the jalpavariety of dialogue, the objective is to prove one's own viewpoint to be correct. It is accepted that the two sides of the debate have irreconcilably different conclusions. The debate begins with a mutually agreed upon epistemology, and ends when one of the debaters agrees that the other's conclusion is, in fact, more correct than one's own. This is not easy to do, however! After an argument is defeated by one's opponent, the debater may return with some other wily argument that defends the conclusion in some other way. Only after cornering the opponent and allowing for no more possible avenues out can the debate finally end. The value of jalpa is that the debaters must acknowledge that there is no point holding on to an opinion if it can be logically defeated by another (however long it may have taken). So in the jalpa style of debate, a person goes from debate to debate, updating one's opinion, until it cannot be defeated anymore. This final opinion becomes known as the siddhānta, the "established doctrine".
 
The third type of dialogue, if it can be called dialogue at all, is known as vitaṇḍa (Nyāya Sūtra 1.2.3). We may call this "trolling", because its objective is not to win by proving one's own idea correct, but to make the other person lose by opposing every argument of the opponent no matter what. Vitaṇḍa is considered a destructive style of argumentation. Here, the person who employs vitaṇḍa has no position of one's own, and does not attempt to defend any thesis. A person may even adopt a viewpoint that is opposed to one's own for the sake of vitaṇḍa. There is nothing to be gained by either party in this encounter. It is the troll's point of view – "I will humiliate you and argue that you are wrong, not because I fundamentally disagree with your position, but because it was you who said it!" According to Vātsyāyana (fifth century CE) in his Nyāya Bhāṣya, a commentary on Gautama's Nyāya Sūtra, there is a way to defeat a troll. Simply by asking them what their position is, or what they propose to debate, they are forced into a quandary: if they propose something, then they have to defend it, and can be argued with; if they do not propose anything, then they may be asked to exit the debate. This may be easier said than done, but it may also help stop a troll once in a while!

 

Reading

Logic, Language and Reality: Indian Philosophy and Contemporary Issues by Bimal Krishna Matilal.

"The toll of the trolls" (5/25/19)

"Eristic argument" (4/6/19)



9 Comments

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 5:48 am

    "This type of dialogue could be called 'discussion', where the goal of the two discussants is to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion that includes the viewpoints of both parties. The objective is not to win, nor is it to defeat the other person, but rather is to reach a logically acceptable conclusion together with the other person".

    If only the British Parliamentary system could conduct its debates along these lines, rather than indulge in the childish and imbecilic "flame wars" which characterise its debates today …

  2. bks said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 6:40 am

    Or is it "fisking":
    https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/fisking

  3. Stentor said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 8:11 am

    I'd say fisking would usually fall under jalpa. A fisker typically has a strongly and honestly held opinion, and dismantling their opponent's argument line-by-line is a technique for showing the fisker's position is superior. If the *only* argumentative technique you ever use is fisking you might risk sliding into vitanda, but that's not inherent to it.

  4. Jonathan said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 10:02 am

    That's not trolling. Merriam-Webster has a good definition:

    to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content.

    At the most basic level, trolling takes the offense while the style described is defensive. It lines up much better with the description of 'Eristic arguing'. Sadly I think 'eristic' is too obscure to become popular. Someone should come up with a punchier Anglo-Saxon name.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 12:07 pm

    The goal of trolling isn't even to make the other person lose. It is to make the other person get upset, ideally have a full nervous breakdown, so the troll can point and laugh at the other person – trolls are sociopaths. Vitaṇḍa is but one technique trolls may use.

  6. David Marjanović said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 12:17 pm

    The Cambridge English Dictionary gets the definition of fisking wrong, I would say. Wiktionary has a better one:

    A rebuttal to an article or blog made by quoting its content in sections and refuting each section individually.

    2004, Barbara O'Brien, Blogging America: Political Discourse in a Digital Nation, page 44:

    By 2004 the word fisking had broken its tether from the topic of war and was being used to mean any detailed analysis of another's speech and writing.

    2006, Peter Wood, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, page 246:

    As Linda Seebach put it, fisking is "line by line exegesis of idiocy," named after "journalist Robert Fisk, who often deserves it." Fisking is now a widely practiced technique.

    It's the answer to the Gish Gallop, and works only in writing: addressing every point in the opposing argument and exposing every mistake in it.

  7. svat said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 12:22 pm

    Happy to see this!

    Some further related references touching on the tradition of debate in India, for those interested:

    1. The book "Religions, Reasons, and Gods" by the late John Clayton has many interesting essays that touch on the vāda tradition. One of his interesting points is that the goal of dialogue need not be consensus or establishing common ground, but simply the clarification of difference (understanding the other party better, and coming to shared understanding of what our differences are). Also touched on in his lecture here: http://www.bu.edu/religion/mar25-98/

    2. Elaborating on the jalpa/vitaṇḍa mentioned here, the nyāya tradition recognized a long list of logical fallacies and poor arguments that were grounds for losing a debate. A list I've found is in the paper "Twenty-Two Ways to Lose a Debate" by Alberto Todeschini (https://doi.org/10.1007/s10781-009-9083-y) which also does some comparison with the ideas of Grice.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 2:48 pm

    It was within living memory that "trolling" meant doing things on the Internet to get a reaction, no matter what you works and what the reaction is. That's not very nice, but it seldom leads to nervous breakdowns. Indeed the trollee (clang clang clang!) may feel self-satisfied about correcting a mistake.

    On the subject of vitaṇḍa, I wonder whether one can distinguish between doing it knowingly and unknowingly. I feel that some people are so eager to engage in it that they don't realize their arguments are specious or even self-contradictory. But maybe only mind-readers can make the distinction.

    Philip Taylor's wish for the British Parliamentary system applies to other systems as well.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 3:47 pm

    From Diana Shuheng Zhang:

    This is so interesting — I wonder if there are works on another three concepts that also interest me — chala (quibbles), jāti (futile rejoinders), and nigrahasthāna (methods of losing an argument)?

    Also, the Nyāya Sūtra is near-contemporary to Zhuangzi, or some famous Warring State rhetorical texts such as Guiguzi and Gongsun Long zi. This post reminds me of those Zhuangzi-Huizi dialogues. I have been thinking about how much research on Pre-Qin Chinese — Ancient Sanskrit comparative rhetoric has been conducted by previous scholarship, for I myself would like to explore this field.

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