Proximity, semantic fitness and syntactic expectancy as criteria for the sentence meaning

Words (for the Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā authors) get connected into a complex sentence meaning through proximity (sannidhi), semantic fitness (yogyatā) and syntactic expectancy (ākāṅkṣā).
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).
It is in this connection noteworthy that the example of expectancy always refer to syntax rather than semantics and typically have a verb expecting a complement or vice versa.

The Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā authors also adopt the same criteria in order to rule the understanding of the sentence meaning out of the connected words and avoid the objections (mentioned above) about the fact that out of a random heap of words one would not know how to start to get to the sentence meaning.

But what exactly do proximity, fitness and syntactical expectancy refer to? The question arises because they seem to conflate different levels, insofar as fitness is necessarily semantic and therefore appears to refer to word-meanings, expectancy is syntactic and proximity seems to refer only to the proximity of the uttered words. However, in Sucarita’s discussion proximity is also attributed to the mental proximity of words or meanings. This can make it possible for the Prābhākara opponent voiced by Sucarita to get to the complex sentence meaning “The door is to be closed” out of “The door!” only, since the words “is to be closed” are mentally proximate. This is needed also in order to explain how one-word sentences can denote a meaning although, according to Prābhākaras, words denote a meaning only once connected. In fact, explains the Prābhākara opponent embedded in Sucarita’s text, one-word sentences such as pacati ‘[s/he] cooks’ denote a complex sentence-meaning together with other words which are proximate in one’s mind, e.g. ‘rice’ or ‘pulses’.

Conversely, this mental aspect of proximity makes it possible for the Bhāṭṭas to interpret all three criteria as referring to meanings, whereas Prābhākaras would still need to understand at least fitness as referring to meanings, not words. How can Prābhākaras still claim that the three criteria lead one to get to the sentence meaning without the intermediate step of the word-meanings? In other words, if word-meanings do not play any role, how can fitness play a role? A possible way out is Śālikanātha’s suggestion that word-meanings, though not denoted by words, are remembered by them. In this case, one might speak of fitness among the remembered word-meanings as leading one’s understanding of the denoted sentence-meaning.

Alternatively, a contemporary Prābhākara might suggest that some preliminary understanding of word-meaning is immediately denoted by each word, but that each new word adjusts the meaning of the previous one through the above mentioned criteria in a hermeneutic circle. This solution is not explicitly discussed, at least in the texts I am aware of, possibly because it implies a preliminary (and therefore epistemologically unsound) step within linguistic communication and could have therefore jeopardised the role of linguistic communication as an instrument of knowledge.

I discussed the Mīmāṃsā theories of sentence meaning at this post.

(cross-posted 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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5 thoughts on “Proximity, semantic fitness and syntactic expectancy as criteria for the sentence meaning

  1. Elisa, on the last point, if I understand you correctly, you are disagreeing with KT Pandurangi’s understanding of Śālikanātha? Pandurangi characterizes what happens in anvitābhidhāna as that words in a sentence first remind people of their objects which were previously learned, but this memory isn’t sufficient for communication (I suppose the idea is that whatever it is, that’s not a word *denoting*), and then the process involving ākāṅkṣādi begins, with a kind of mutual adjustment of word meanings. See his gloss beginning on page 381 in his PP on kārika 12:

    padajātaṃ śrutaṃ sarvaṃ smāritā ‘nanvitārthakam |
    nyāyasampāditavyakti paścād vākyārthabodhakam ||

    • Malcolm, thanks for your comment. I am answering from home and I do not have Pandurangi’s book here (will check it next week), but meanwhile:
      Are you talking about the last paragraph (“Alternatively, a contemporary Prābhākara might suggest…”)? If so, yes, I am suggesting that some preliminary denotation of word-meanings can take place before the denotation of the sentence-meaning.
      I would not say I am “disagreeing with K.T. Pandurangi’s understanding of Śālikanātha”, though. I agree with K.T. Pandurangi that for Śālikanātha words cause one to remember (smārayanti) their individual meanings (kevalapadārtha), whereas they all together denote (abhidadhati) the sentence meaning, but in the last paragraph I was suggesting an alternative path for Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā, not an alternative reading of Śālikanātha. The reason for my suggestion is my dissatisfaction with the distinction between smār- and abhidhā-, which seems only a lexical technicality. It is more relevant, I think, to say that at the first stage the understanding of the individual padārthas is not yet sure. Say that I hear a child speaking of her horse. Until the end of the sentence I might be uncertain about whether she means a real horse or a toy, so that the word aśva denotes its kevalapadārtha only in a preliminary way. Does this make sense?

      • I see, Elisa, I think I misunderstood–when you said you didn’t see the solution explicitly discussed, I thought you meant the idea of some preliminary understanding at all, which is what I thought was strange, and thus maybe a reinterpretation of Śālikanātha (I missed the previous sentence where you explicitly mentioned the view!). Quick reading, apologies.

        But now I see (I think) that you’re saying: why hold onto this distinction between a word causing a memory and denoting, since it seems like there’s a sense in which the first is just a more general version of the latter (with your horse example, “aśva” causes us to remember maybe a range of things, or some paradigmatic exemplar, etc). In which case I agree–and I wonder if you have looked at/what you think about Fraçois Recanati’s work on contextualism, which distinguishes between what is stored in memory (something abstract, schematic, etc) and what is activated in a sentence. The first still counts as a kind of meaning for him, despite being charged with being an eliminativist about word meaning.

        • Many thanks, Malcolm. Recanati’s work looks relevant (I do not know it, but it seems I need to start reading it). If you have time, I would be interested in reading your view on Recanati’s being an eliminativist.