Friday, August 16, 2013

The context principle and some Indian controversies over Meaning —B.K. Matilal and P.K. Sen

The context principle and some Indian controversies over Meaning is a milestone in Indian studies, and in the history of their interaction with mainstream (i.e. Western) philosophy. Since it was published in 1988 on Mind (one of the top-5 journals in Philosophy, inaccessible for most authors), virtually everyone (in Indian philosophy) has read it.

Have you also re-read it?
I re-read it after some years this Summer and I have to admit that it was again a surprise. The article starts with a discussion of the Context principle in Frege and Quine (does the principle mean that words HAVE no meaning outside a sentence, or that their meaning can only be UNDERSTOOD within a sentence?). In this connection, M & S discuss a strong and a weak interpretation of the Context principle (according to whether it should answer the first or the second question). They end up saying that the strong interpretation clashes with Frege's later work (see below), whereas the weak interpretation (the context is only needed to understand the meaning of words) is trivial. Thus, an intermediate interpretation needs to be adopted, namely that "the meaning of a subsentential expression is nothing but its contribution to the meaning of the sentence in which it occurs" (p. 80).

Next, Matilal and Sen discuss also Russell's On Denoting (another milestone of contemporary Philosophy of Language). I have to admit that I could not understand Matilal and Sen's treatment of it until I actually read Russell (but the fact of making a reader undertake further studies might be conceived as a further result of Matilal and Sen). Until M & S, in fact, I had always thought of Russell's philosophy of language as correspondentist, whereas M & S interpret Russell's strategy of reduction (through his "contextual definitions") as also (implicitly) presupposing some sort of Context principle.

A further step is the analysis of Frege. In fact, the Context principle seems to clash with the sense-reference distinction, outlined by Frege in his later work. M & S use Michael Dummett's Frege: Philosophy of Language to claim that both theses can co-exist: words' meanings are outer referents, but "we cannot say anything, in the strict sense of the word 'say', without the use of whole sentences" (p. 80). After a short excursus on Kant's unity of thought, Michael Dummett's book is also quoted to discuss the distinction between the Context principle and the Composition principle. According to the latter, the meaning of a sentence is the result of the composition of the words forming it.

Does this sound familiar? If not, it means that you have not been working on the Kumārila-Prabhākara-Bhartṛhari-Nyāya controversy on word- and sentence-meaning. In fact, as shown by M & S in the second part of their work (pp. 84--97), the Indian scenario also revolves on similar issues. Bhartṛhari is clearly an holist: for him the meaning of a sentence is a whole and word-meanings are only secondary abstractions. Kumārila and Prabhākara represent two different positions, possibly identifiable, respectively, with the weak and the intermediate interpretation of the Context principle.

This leads to a further problem, i.e., the link between linguistics and ontology. The topic is only hinted at at the end of M & S's article, but it is, in my opinion, the most thought-provoking contribution of the article (together with the very idea of joining Frege and Kumārila side by side in a philosophical debate).

In fact, if words express their meanings only once already related in the context of a sentence, as upheld by the Prābhākaras, what consequences does this have for the Prābhākara ontology? If, for instance, "cow" in "Bring the cow!" does not mean  a separate cow, but a cow insofar as it is related to the injunction of being brought, does this entail that a "cow-connected-with-the-injunction-of bringing" exists out there? What sort of cow would this be? Surely an incomplete cow, one which is completed by the injunction of bringing. Should one admit —for the sake of maintaining the correspondentism between meanings and outer world— that there are "unsaturated entities" out there?

My personal answer is that ontology is less relevant than linguistics for the Prābhākaras (unlike for most Western philosophers and common folks) and that, as a matter of fact, this sort of correspondentism is already ruled out by the Prābhākara stress on exhortations as the paradigm of all sentences.

What do you think? Can there be linguistics without ontology?
Moreover, methodologically speaking, I wonder why M & S has not been enough for further studies of this sort to be the rule on Mind (and other philosophical journals). Does this failure depend on their style? (Or should we just start working as a task-force and submit many articles of this kind?)

On ontology and Mīmāṃsā, see this post. On ontology in Indian philosophy in general, see this one.
As hinted at in the Introduction, this was not the first time I read M & S's article. You can read a further post about it (focusing on the Prābhākara linguistic theory) here. On Frege's and the Prābhākara philosophy of language, check this post.


Ruy D'Aleixo said...

Thanks for the post Elisa. I think linguistics vs ontology is a false dichotomy. If you take language as a reality, here you have your ontology. It may be non-corporeal, or whatever, but it is an Ontology nonetheless. But maybe I misunderstood the question.

elisa freschi said...

Well, Aleix, this is a possible answer. In this way, you are saying that whatever is said, exists. This was Meinong's position and has many advantages, but a major disadvantage, insofar as it creates a very crowded ontology (whatever is said, including unicorns and horned hares, would end up existing). Or did I misunderstand your answer?;-)

Ruy D'Aleixo said...

I say that "the saying" exists, and you have to agree with that, otherwise, I don't know what we are talking about! ;)

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