Meanings of Words and Sentences in Mīmāṃsā

Mīmāṃsakas of both the Bhāṭṭa and the Prābhākara subschools refute the idea of a sphoṭa carrying the meaning and being different from what we experience, namely phonemes and words, since this contradicts the principle of parsimony and our common experience. Accordingly, they claim that phonemes really exist and that they together constitute words. They also subscribe to the idea that words convey word-meanings, and thus refute the Bhartṛharian holism, again because this idea is confirmed by common experience and common experience should be trusted unless there is a valid reason not to. In fact, human beings commonly experience that one needs to understand the words composing a sentence in order to understand its meaning.

Moreover, human beings also agree about the fact that words (and not complex texts only) are related to a distinct meaning. The relation between a word as meaningful unit and its meaning is fixed, as it is proved by our common experience of language. This experience cannot be denied in favour of a view focusing on the text as a whole and rejecting without compelling reasons our prima facie experience of words as meaningful units.

Given that one can thus establish that words are meaningful, what exactly do they convey? Mainstream Mīmāṃsā authors, departing from Śabara, claim, against Nyāya ones, that words convey universals (see ŚBh ad PMS 1.1.24: sāmānye padam “the word conveys the universal”). This is, again, confirmed, by our common experience, in which words figure again and again denoting the same element recurring in several particular items, namely their underlying universal aspect. For instance, the word “cow” denotes in every sentence in which it occurs the universal “cowness”, which is shared by all individual cows. However, this thesis seems at first sight to imply that words would never be able to convey a complex state of affairs on their own accord, and would therefore be almost useless. Human language would be constituted almost of extremely general statements about universals and, which is even more important for Mīmāṃsakas, no specific actions could be enjoined. In fact, each order presuppose a specification (one cannot bring the universal cowness, but only a particular cow). In order to solve this difficulty, Mīmāṃsakas claim that a complex state of affairs (viśiṣṭārtha in the Mīmāṃsā jargon) is conveyed by a sentence (see again, ŚBh ad PMS 1.1.24: viśeṣe vākyam ”the sentence conveys the specific”). This means that the sentence-meaning is more than the sheer sum of word-meanings, insofar as at the level of sentence meaning one moves from one level (that of universals) to the other (that of specific meanings). This solution, however, leads to a further question, namely: How are these two different levels reached? Do the same words lead to the one and then to the next?

The process of sentence‐signification, leading from words to the sentence‐meaning, is distinctly explained by the two main Mīmāṃsā sub-schools, Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā and Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā. Both subschools agree on the basic tenets seen so far, but they differ on the path leading from the words signifying universals to the sentence signifying a particular state of affairs. According to Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā authors, words conclude their function in denoting their own universal meanings (they ground this view in a statement by Śabara, describing words as nivṛttavyāpārāṇi `having concluded their function’, ŚBh ad 1.1.25). Thus, it is the word-meanings, conveyed by words, which convey the sentence-meaning once connected together.

One might (as did Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā authors) object that in this case the sentence meaning is no longer conveyed directly by words, but rather by their meanings and that it is therefore no longer strictly speaking linguistic. Thus, the sentence-meaning would no longer be conveyed through linguistic communication as a distinct instrument of knowledge. This might be a sheer terminological problem, but for Mīmāṃsā authors it has a much deeper relevance. In fact, Mīmāṃsā authors explain that only the Vedas can convey knowledge of dharma. This means that any knowledge of dharma obtained through another source is invariably unreliable. Therefore, if the sentence-meaning were not linguistic, then even the sentence-meanings about dharma would no longer be directly conveyed by Vedic sentences, and would therefore end up being unreliable.

Bhāṭṭa authors reply that the sentence meaning is indeed a function of words, although via their meanings. Bhāṭṭas therefore distinguish a direct denotation (abhidhā) of words, through which universals are denoted, and a secondary signification (lakṣaṇā), through which complex sentence meanings are conveyed.

Prābhākara authors object in three ways: 1. They claim that lakṣaṇā is possible only once the direct denotation is impossible (for instance, in the case of “The village on the Ganges”, one comes to understand that the village is on the Ganges’ bank because the primary meaning would be impossible). But what exactly is incongruous in the word meanings once connected? 2. How do word-meanings connect to each other? If they do it because the words bestow into them the capacity to connect to each other, then it is more economical to just postulate that the words themselves convey the sentence-meaning, without the intermediate step of the sentence-meaning. 3. If word-meanings can automatically connect among themselves, then why don’t they do it unless once in a sentence (in this connection it is important to recollect that artha means both a linguistically conveyed meaning and a cognitively acquired one)? A plausible answer to 1. would point to the fact that the connection of various universals leads in fact to an impossibility since, as in the above example, one cannot bring the universal cowness. One might also suggest that lakṣaṇā in the Bhāṭṭa account acquires a technical meaning, different from the one it assumes in accounts of implicature etc. As for 2. and 3., Kumārila Bhaṭṭa answers that word-meanings do in fact connect automatically and this this does actually occur even outside of sentences. The example Kumārila mentions will be discussed by generations of authors and will remain the only one discussed in this connection: A person sees an indistinct white shape, hears a neighing and perceives the sound of hooves. These three unconnected meanings automatically connect into the complex meaning ”A white horse is running”.

By contrast, Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā authors, and especially Prabhākara’s main commentator, Śalikanātha, state that words first get connected and then denote the specified sentence meaning only once connected. This assures that the sentence meaning can be said to be linguistically conveyed, since there is not the intermediary step of word-meanings, a conclusion which is very important for the Mīmāṃsā epistemology, regarding linguistic communication as a distinct instrument of knowledge (see the section above). However, this explanation altogether skips the role of word-meanings. Thus, Prābhākara authors have to explain the fact that the own meanings of single words appear to do have a role to play in the process, since there is an invariable concomitance between knowing the words’ individual meanings and knowing the sentence’s one. This tension between the opposing risks of atomism and holism is dealt with differently by various authors. Prabhākara seems to present the most basic version of the theory, where word-meanings just don’t play a role in the apprehension of the sentence-meaning. Śālikanātha and his Bhāṭṭa opponent Sucarita start discussing the role the memory of the individual word-meanings plays in the process. Words would accordingly cause one to remember their own meanings, then get related to one another and then denote the complex sentence-meaning. The word-meanings would therefore be recollected, but not denoted by words.

Words get connected into a complex sentence meaning through proximity, semantic fitness and syntactic expectancy. These three criteria correspond to the requirement of being uttered one after the other with no intervening time (unlike in the case of the words ”a cow” and ”runs” pronounced on two different days), being semantically fit to connect (unlike the words ”watering” and ”with fire”) and being linkable through syntactic expectancy (as in the case of a verb and its arguments).

Do you think the Mīmāṃsā theories only make sense in their own context? Or do they look convincing even for people like us? Why (not)?

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

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