Thursday, December 9, 2010

Working on Indian (Sanskrit) linguistics

Jayanta Bhaṭṭa, a 9th c. Kashmirian philosopher of the Nyāya school, offers to beginners a great chance to have a glance of the richness of the Indian philosophical debate, particularly in regard to language. Chapters 3 to 6 of his encyclopaedic Nyāyamañjarī (NM) are dedicated to language.
Within it, the purpose of NM 5 is to examine the nature of language and, hence, its ideal readers are not just expert in Sanskrit but are also versed in the treatment of some important problems of language studies (such as the problem of word reference, and the problem of the sentence meaning relatively to the different speech acts).
Language, explains Jayanta, is experienced as words and sentences (elements smaller than the word, such as phonemes and morphemes, are not taken into account since they do not convey any meaning per se). Since words are the constituents of sentences, their nature is investigated in the first part of NM 5. The main focus is on the meaning and the reference of words. Three solutions are suggested and discussed: word meaning as an individual (a token, in modern terminology), word meaning as a universal category (akin to a what is called a 'type' in modern terminology), and word meaning as the exclusion (apoha) of everything else (akin to the Saussurean conception of differential meaning of the linguistic sign and his notion of linguistic value). The controversy whether the individuals or the universals are to be considered preeminent is a classical topic of Western philosophy, but in India it has characteristically a linguistic bias.
The Indian theory of Apoha has been elaborated by the buddhist Pramāṇavāda in order to account for the conundrum of the efficiency of language in referencing reality although it is does not either correspond to the former nor describe it as it is. In fact, language is conventional and moreover results from human super-impositions on reality. External objects are not accessible as such to mediate knowledge (the reasons for that are linked to the ontological presuppositions of Pramāṇavāda; this opinion, however, is shared by several Western philosophers). Hence, words cannot directly denote their reference, since there is no one-to-one relationship between words and objects. Still, we understand each other while talking. This is possible because, though words do not denote the same object for everyone, yet, they denote in the same way the exclusion of whatever is not meant. So, utterances such as "Bring the cow!" are usually followed by someone bringing an actual cow because the word "cow" denotes "whatever is not a non-cow". In short, the word "cow" denotes the exclusion of whatever does not fit with the mental image of a cow.
The Pramāṇavāda further elaborates on these basic assumptions, while Kumārila Bhaṭṭa tries to defeat the Pramāṇavāda stance from the viewpoint of direct realism. As in the case of the controversy about universals, typically Indian is the linguistic viewpoint on ontology.

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