Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Does the verb "to have" designate an external state of affairs?

Reading often books related to South-Asian culture (especially: history, texts, philosophy), I am usually confronted with the annoying fact that they hardly have a methodological introduction, that the goal they want to attain is often unspelt, that their presuppositions are ambiguous, etc.
In short: their authors often implicitly assume to be following no particular method, and that there is hence no need to debate it –which is a very dangerous stance, because one always follows one method or the other and believing not to follow one just means that one is following one as if it were the only possible one, i.e., blindly.

Hence, Michel Angot's long introduction to his translation of the Nyāyabhāṣya (discussed in some previous posts) is refreshing and intriguing at the same time. I dissent with several of Angot's claims, but the fact of promoting debate is, in my opinion, a further advantage of Angot's Introduction.

I am puzzled, for instance, by Angot's statements about the absence of the concept of "possess" (avoir) and "ought" (devoir) not just in Sanskrit language, but also in Sanskrit thought (pp.38-44), since the accurateness of Angot's reflection concerning Sanskrit is accompanied by no reflections at all about the French usage of these words. Angot seems to use French almost in the same way he reproaches Indians to have used Sanskrit, that is, as if it were the "natural language", the one in comparison to which any other might be judged. Hence, since there is a verb "to have" in French and not in Sanskrit, Angot discusses the "absence" of the corresponding meaning in Sanskrit (p. 43, my emphasis). He does not discuss its presence in French, nor does he seem to admit the possibility that the same content might be expressed through two different phraseologies. I might be wrong, but I cannot see any conceptual difference between the Latin way of expressing possess (mihi est …), the Hindī one (mere pās … hai) and the French one (j'ai …). And even if there were one (for instance, if the French phraseology would stress one's agency within a possess-relation), French would be part of the question and not a judge aloof of it. One might argue that French thinkers misconstrue the relation of possess as if it implied an agent, although it is quite different from the description of an action. Structural linguists do in fact distinguish between the "I" in "I cook" (agent), the "I" in "I hear" (experiencer) and the "I" in "I have" (theme or patient).

However, it is noteworthy that Angot himself at another point of his long introduction criticises the idea that the language determines the thought (p.48) and adds the very important caveat that one is never sure that the categories we now attribute to a language are the same shared by ancient authors thinking in that same language (p. 48, fn.120).


michael reidy said...

At a slight tangent:
Then we have the profound silliness in English PC language that emanates from American Academia. I mean the gendered personal pronoun and the usage analogous to the distinction between the specific and the generic, he and she. When moving from a language where the pronoun is not gendered eg. Irish to English we have to imagine our chauvinist index rising. What is the present status of Sapir-Whorf I wonder.

Ruy D'Aleixo said...

I'm eager to read this book you are commenting on. I think language does'nt determine thought, but it does determine the philosophical discourse. Yesterday I was reading a Spanish translation of Nagarjuna's Mûlamadhyamakakârikâ, and Sanskrit was far better comprehensible than Spanish (I must say the translation is purposely literal). My point is that many Sanskrit philosophical discussions are entangled in grammatical "legal gaps" (so to say). The relation of possessor and possessed is frequently implied in Nominative Genitive relations. I would like to ask you if you really consider Nagarjuna a sort of Wittgenstein avant la lettre.

elisa freschi said...

@Michael, this is exactly the point. Please, read today's post for a more detailed answer.

elisa freschi said...

Aleix, I hope you will discuss further the methodological problem of how can Skt philosophical texts be translated. I agree with you, and often need the Sanskrit text in order to understand the English (or German) translation.

But what do you mean with "legal gaps"? That translators try to build sentences in Spanish/English/Italian… as if it were Sanskrit?

As for the relation of possessor-possessed, I agree. One does not a verb "to have" to express it. In fact, I am inclined to think of the verb "to have" as a linguistic perversity, since it expresses too many different relations (think of "to have a friend/a cold/a bike/many homeworks" and so on).

Re. Wittgenstein and Nāgārjuna: interesting question. Could you frame it a little bit? Why should Nāgārjuna be anticipating Wittgenstein?

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