A possible narrative on the history of linguistics in India

In classical Indian philosophy, linguistics and philosophy of language are of central importance and inform further fields, such as epistemology and poetics. Thus, looking at the debates on linguistics and philosophy of language offers one a snapshot on the lively philosophical arena of classical India.

This semester, I will be teaching about linguistics and philosophy of language* in classical India. The topic is too vaste, so I will need to make some drastic choices. The following are the elements of the narrative I will be following:

The philosophical arena in classical** India has three main protagonists, which are constantly responding to each other, namely Pūrva Mīmāṃsā, Nyāya and the Buddhist Epistemological School. In the case of linguistics, two further schools enter the debate. On the one hand, Nyāya and even more so Mīmāṃsā have to answer to the challenges of the Vyākaraṇa (‘Grammar’) school which first focused on linguistic analyses of morphemes, but after Bhartṛhari (5th c.?) offered comprehensive accounts of the way language conveys knowledge. On the other hand, the school of Poetics (alaṅkāraśāstra) reused elements of the Mīmāṃsā and of the Nyāya theories and elaborated them further (see two recent articles by Hugo David and Andrew Ollett).

As for the main contents of the debate, a core concern is the identification of three elements, namely the identity of the signifier (vācaka), of the signified (vācya) and of their relation (sambandha). As for the first, does the vācaka consist of the phonemes? If so, of them collectively or one by one? Of their phonic form or of their essential characters? If not, does it consist of the words? Of the sentences? Or of something being manifested by words, but not identical with them, like the Grammarians’ sphoṭa?
As for the vācya, discussants argued for its identification with individuals or with universals, with a mental idea or with the exclusion of anything else.
Last, as for the sambandha, the Mīmāṃsakas believe it to be intrinsic and not available to human beings. Naiyāyikas, by contrast, consider it to be conventional. Experts of poetics will combine at different times Mīmāṃsā elements (such as the theory of bhāvanā, see again the two articles mentioned above) with the Naiyāyikas’ openness to the creativity of single authors. Grammarians, in turn, agree with Mīmāṃsā on the intrinsic relation between signifier and signified, but identify the former with the sphoṭa, thus violating the Mīmāṃsā’s commitment to what Westerners call the Ockham’s razor (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem).

* I am forced to use two terms due to the lack of correspondence between Western and Indian categories.
** The situation was different before the first centuries AD and changed after the first millennium.

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

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4 thoughts on “A possible narrative on the history of linguistics in India

  1. Hi, Elisa!
    A very comprehencive report. But I wonder, why you write, that Grammarians identified vācaka with sphoţa? PatāNjali opposed sphoţa to dhvani. Bhartṛhari on some occasion identified sphoţa with jāti (VP I.96: anekavyaktyabhivyaṅgyā jātiḥ sphoţa iti smŗtā), which means that it is rather vācya, than vācaka. But in general for Bhartṛhari sphoţa is an integral indivisible unity of sound and meaning. You can find some argumentation and references (first of all, Bronkhorst and Matilal) in my paper http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10781-014-9265-0

    • thank you, Evgenija! I was focusing primarily on later depictions of sphoṭa (e.g., the Sphoṭanirṇaya or Nāgeśa’s Sphoṭavāda: tatra sphoṭaty artho ‘smād iti sphoṭaḥ, vācaka iti yāvat, p. 9) and I am ready to admit that I am influenced by the adversaries’ depictions of the sphoṭa as synonym of śabda (e.g., in Jayanta’s Nyāyamañjarī, first part of book 6, where one of the arguments in favour of the sphoṭa is the fact that we use the singular in sentences such as śabdād artham pratipadyāmahe). Thus, thanks for alerting me about the complexity of the issue.

      • An interesing example of how initial concepts and ideas are reinterpreted by later schools which adopt them and modify, to fit their own context. Though one could say in advance, that a Naiyāyika would not agree with Bhartṛhari’s intention to eliminate the difference between vācya and vācaka.

        • Thanks, Evgenija. I will point out to this problem during the lecture. And it is really a pity that you cannot come to Vienna and illustrate it yourself:-(