On the Indian lack of distinction between linguistic and external reality

In his contribution to a recent symposium (Does Asia think differently? –Symposium zu Ehre Ernst Steinkellners), as well as in many other publications of him (e.g., Langage et Réalité: sur un épisode de la pensée indienne, 1999), Johannes Bronkhorst answered that yes, there is a substantial difference between “our” thought and the Indian one, in so far as the latter does not distinguish between purely linguistic problems and genuine ones.

For instance, Indians argued for centuries, according to Bronkhorst, about the ontological status of a linguistic object which is linguistically present before its actual existence, such as a pot in “the potter makes the pot”. Westerners would have immediately labeled the pot as non-existing until it is realised by the potter and would not have not paused on its ontology, whereas Indians never distinguished between linguistic and external reality.

This is an interesting insight, and in fact there are several elements suggesting (as Karl Potter maintained) that the “linguistic turn” occurred in India much earlier than in Europe (note that I am saying the same thing Bronkhorst said, but looking at it from a more favourable perspective), such as the insistence on the analysis of linguistic data in order to solve epistemological or ontological issues (cf. the insistence on the linguistic use śabdaṃ kṛ- within the debate about the ontological status of śabda).

However, many Buddhist schools seem to aptly distinguish between the two (e.g., insofar as language is vikalpa and only the ultimate particular, which escapes language, is real). The same applies, as far as my knowledge reaches, at least also to Mīmāṃsakas. For instance, Rāmānujācārya speaks of karman (the linguistic object) and kriyāphala (the result of the action, as an ontological reality) as two distinct realities (cf. Tantrarahasya, IV §3.13.2: kriyāphalaśali karma).

What do you think? Which evidences for or against the self-assumed equivalence of language and thought did you encounter?

(Cross-posted, with minor differences, on the Indian Philosophy blog)

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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3 thoughts on “On the Indian lack of distinction between linguistic and external reality

  1. I have only the foggiest idea of what Indian texts say, and no meaningful knowledge of Sanskrit of any other Indian language, but the point is interesting.
    First, I find a title like “Does Asia think differently?” extremely misleading in several obvious ways – making me wary of the linguistic insight of someone who uses linguistic items so carelessly, unless it is done on purpose. Anyway, I believe that Bonkhorst isn’t quite right – as far as I know, the ontological status of the pot in a sentence like the one you quote isn’t so obvious in ALL “Western” traditions of thought, surely it is not in Muslim theology for instance (which should defintely count as “Western” in this context, insofar it makes extensive use of Aristotelian logic and the related train of thought, from physics to astronomy; if it doesn’t, there’s a big problem). To pick a less controversial case, such a problem would be intractable in a strictly Platonic framework – it is only with Aristotelian distinction of potency and actuality that the matter became clarified in the “West” and as said, in Medieval Islamic thought it would have posed questions regardless (many theologians bought into Aristotelian logic but not Aristotelian physics). Moreover, I am familiar enough with the intricacies of Indian lingustic thought to suppose that India would have developed the distinction between linguistic and external reality fairly soon – something that in my view is questionable Plato or Aristotle ever did in a clear way (what with neither bothering to investigate language as such in any significant way, with the depressing exception of Plato’s Cratylus).

    • Thanks for the interesting comment, Marco, especially as for the act-potency distincion as a solution of the pot-conundrum. I feel obliged to say that it is not Bronkhorst’s duty to dive into real details, he is rather the “big ideas” kind of person —and one cannot but be grateful to these people who rescue us from sheer care for details.