Thursday, December 9, 2010

What does a sentence mean? Again on Indian linguistics

A little longer than the first one (discussed in the last post), is the second part of NM 5, which is dedicated to the sentence-meaning. Various discussants oppose each other maintaining different theses about it. Interestingly enough, most of them agree that the meaning conveyed by a sentence consists in an action. Furthermore, some specify it as a bhāvanā (or arthabhāvanā), a verbal noun derived from the causative of the root bhū-, "to be", i.e., a "[force] causing to be" a certain result. The bhāvanā-theory is central in the Mīmāṃsā tradition since Śabara (5th century or before). It represents a view on the process of linguistic signification, and is notably distinct from that of the Vyākaraṇa (Grammar) tradition (Mīmāṃsā and Vyākaraṇa being the two most ancient and influential traditions as for language investigation in India). A bhāvanā is an action and it is so called insofar as it "causes to be" the planned result. Kumārila — whose views are accurately reproduced in NM 5 — innovates the theory through his introduction of an additional, linguistic bhāvanā (called śabdabhāvanā) which constitutes the efficient force inherent in the language itself. To explain, a sentence such as "He brings the cow" has as its core meaning a bhāvanā, namely, the fact of causing to be the bringing of the cow. On the other hand, "Bring the cow!" has as its meanings both the above-mentioned bhāvanā and a linguistic one. The latter is meant to explain the fact that one is led to undertake an action (a bhāvanā) by hearing a prescriptive sentence (or, as Austin would put it, an illocutionary speech act).
Hence, maintains Kumārila, prescriptive sentences include in themselves a force causing to be a specific result (the undertaking of the action). Such linguistic bhāvanā is located, according to Kumārila, in the prescriptive component of a finite verbal form.
The topic of bhāvanā, in sum, is a stimulating one insofar as it focuses on the peculiarity of prescriptive sentences, which are not considered as an exception among normal, descriptive ones. Unfortunately, it has still not been sufficiently studied and even the exact meaning of the two terms "arthabhāvanā" and "śabdabhāvanā" is not yet settled. Along with the paucity of insightful studies on bhāvanā within Indian philosophy, also any appraisal of their possible significance for Western linguistics and philosophy of language lacks altogether.
The above sketch will possibly demonstrate how a direct translation of these theories within a Western terminology is not easy. The Indian debate on language does not reproduce the subject-partition we are used to and a Western reader may feel uneasy while reading of the epistemological value of language as a means for communicating knowledge side by side with discussions on the semantic value of optative endings (which are used, in Sanskrit, to convey an illocutionary speech act). However, I believe that theories which are alien to the Western mainstream may prove efficacious in providing further stimuli, especially insofar as they propose new questions and new fields of investigations.
One of such fields might be the primacy of the illocution within linguistic communication, another the connection between linguistics and epistemology, coalescing in the analysis of language.


Dominik Wujastyk said...

I'm not responding meaningfully to the substance of your post, really, but I'd like to pick up a detail. You say, 'a "[force] causing to be"', using the square brackets in the manner widespread in our field. But is this fair? Does bhū or bhāvanā have a sense of "force" in it? If so, then say, "a force causing to be." If not, then why do we have the right to put "[force]" into the translation? I perfectly understand that we are trying to *clarify* something about the meaning of bhū. However, is there not a danger that we are, rather, not clarifying but *bending* the meaning. We are inserting something that we wish bhū meant. But it doesn't mean "force," actually. I am troubled by this "bending" of meanings, which is commonly justified as "glossing" as if we are privy to semantic facts of Sanskrit that we are sharing with our readers, but which we are too shy to actually translate for some reason.

I don't think I've expressed myself very well, but there can be something profoundly deceptive, I think, about the way square brackets are used in indology.

elisa freschi said...

Good point (and very well expressed, as far as I can judge). You might remember John Taber's choice in his book "Kumārila on Perception", namely, no square or round brackets. Whatever is needed for the sake of understanding the translation is just part of it.

As for me through the example of bhāvanā, "causing to be" would be fine and I usually just explain the meaning of bhāvanā (the same applies for similar termini technici) and then leave it untranslated if I am translating some Mīmāṃsā discussion about it. I only translate it when it is not the core of the problem and in such cases I feel compelled to be as reader-friendly as possible. And this implies 'pre-cooking' a dish for her, that is, offering the reader an interpretation of the Sanskrit word mutuated by my understanding of it. I see your point, but I take care always to have the Sanskrit text in my articles (should I do it also here?) so that expert readers can check my translations back against it. For them, square brackets work as a sort of warning, making them aware of the fact that they should check back the Sanskrit. For 'newcomers', on the other hand, a sheer translation, such as "causing to be" would be, I am afraid, not enough. Again, in the case of larger works, one can discuss it at length, add a footnote or a glossary entry. If no option like that is viable (as in a blog post, I am inclined to think), bending the meaning towards my understanding seems to me better than offering something not understandable at all. What do you think?

michael reidy said...

What do sentences mean and how do sentences mean? A great, a deep question, and not in the least all about language. We first sense wholes from the input of parts. The satisfaction of an infant looking at the empty bottle and uttering 'all gone'. The first response is to copy, throw all that input into the brain and let it sort itself out. Wittgenstein had in his early work the idea that a sentence was like the model of a traffic accident but then later he reconsidered - how could you render 'or', 'but', 'although', 'maybe', the logical operators that cast their shadow over the whole sentence inducing a mood of doubt or hesitation. Shankaracarya with his theory of Vedic Words in B.S.B. must believe in the solid blocks of 'apoureshya' meaning in the words themselves. There is the Platonic intuition that we never encounter individuals. In this respect philosophy is a form of poetry or a redaction of experience.

elisa freschi said...

Michael, you sound interesting and your arguments fascinating at the same time. But I wonder how you could justify the immediate understanding of new sentences made of words one already knows.

michael reidy said...

We have this master plan called grammer which supplies an immediate constellation for the native speaker. Like we look at a group of stars and say - 'that's the plough' or Ursa Major.

elisa freschi said...

This seems to imply that a global intuition is what one learns thruogh a sentence, and that new sentences can be understood out of known words, through the intermediate step of grammar. But does not grammar itself presuppose words, just like astrology presupposes the existence of single 'stars'?

michael reidy said...

Noam Chomsky has written about this. Im not up to speed on his latest views since the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) theory. He's still an innate capacity theorist. It's clear that the brain is hard-wired for language.

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