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.

Is anything at all understood out of false sentences?

Before answering that you do obviously understand something out of false sentences, too, consider that this would lead to:

—distinguishing between understanding the meaning of a sentence and knowing it to be true

—assuming a non-committal understanding of the meaning of a sentence

—understanding fitness as a requirement for the sentence meaning (yogyatā) as limited to the lack of obvious inconsistencies and not as regarding truth

—(possibly) assuming that the meaning of a sentence is not an entity out there (since there is no out-there entity in the case of false sentences), but rather a mental one

 

If you are now inclined to say that Indian authors on a whole could not answer yes to the question in the title, read the following sentence by Veṅkaṭanātha:

śaśaviṣāṇavākyād api bodho jāyata eva

Also out of the sentence claiming that hares have horns (e.g., out of an obviously false sentence), an awareness does indeed arise (SM ad 1.1.25, 1971 edition p. 114).

 

What shall one avoid in the case of eye-diseases?

A problem with polysemy

Veṅkaṭanātha discusses in his commentary on PMS 1.1.9 the case of words having multiple meanings. On the one hand, there are words which have multiple meanings and whose meaning can be fixed only due to the proximity to other words. On the other, there are words which have one prevalent meaning, but which can assume a different meaning due to the proximity of other words. Therefore, the proximity of other words is not in itself a disambiguating factor. The Nyāya objector takes advantage of that to suggest that one needs to resort to convention.

The Natural Relation in Mīmāṃsā

Mīmāṃsā authors refute the Nyāya and Buddhist theory of a conventional relation and try to prove that nobody would ever be able to establish a linguistic convention without words, since any convention-maker would in turn need words to explain that a certain word X is to be connected with a certain meaning. It follows that, in order to avoid a circular regress, at some point one necessarily needs words whose relation with their meanings is not conventional. Later Nyāya authors introduce here the idea of a God who creates words with an embedded conventional relation, but this thesis implies, according to Mīmāṃsā authors, far too many unwarranted assumptions. Mīmāṃsakas rather stick to common experience, in which language is a given.
Mīmāṃsā authors also dedicate much energy to the explanation of the process through which one learns a language, first understanding the meaning of basic sentences and then the meaning of their constituent words.

The “Hillary Clinton” effect in Sanskrit studies

Why do we look for excuses for not engaging with recent Sanskrit scholarship?

To my knowledge, Veṅkaṭanātha’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā (henceforth SM) has been commented upon only once in Sanskrit, namely in the 20th c. within the 1971 edition. The title of the commentary is Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā ‘gloss on subtle meanings’. As often the case with commentaries, some moot issues are just not commented upon, but the commentary is very often insightful and useful at the same time, providing identifications of speakers and adding interpretative cues. Also relevant is the fact that its author is a outspoken Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedāntin who, unlike the author of the SM, does not feel compelled to assume a Mīmāṃsā standpoint. Therefore, in case of conflict (for instance, at the beginning of the commentary on PMS 1.1.6, pp. 88–89 of the 1971 edition) he highlights the differences between the Mīmāṃsā perspective presented in the main text and the Viśiṣṭādvaita one. Thus, he makes it indirectly visible that Veṅkaṭanātha’s choice of reading PMS 1.1.6 as focusing on the signification power of language instead of on the permanence of phonemes is not only one legitimate interpretive choice within Mīmāṃsā hermeneutics, but also an effort aiming at the harmonisation of the PMS with the lore of Viśiṣṭādvaita Veṅkaṭanātha needed to take into account.

In this way, the Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā‘s author also indirectly points out the gigantic effort Veṅkaṭanātha undertook, almost seven centuries before, when he tried to propose a synthesis of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta.

These reasons should make it clear why I deemed it relevant to include a translation of the Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā to my study of the SM. I can also add that in general recent Sanskrit scholarship often tends to be neglected only because it is recent and Sanskrit, whereas I cannot see any a priori reason for not engaging in a close study of both recent and ancient texts in Sanskrit, and for not reading both English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Sanskrit recent scholarship.

PS: I wrote that I don’t see any a priori reason, because I can understand that life is short and one needs to decide what to read, and that reading one’s colleagues’ or future evaluators’ articles might be pragmatically the most advisable choice. But studying Sanskrit is already a non-pragmatic life choice, so that it cannot be reduced to career moves. Moreover, preserving ideodiversity (copyright: Houben), even within the Sanskrit ekumene should be at least part of the mission of people engaging with such non-pragmatic life-choices. Don’t you think?

Open access papers on philosophy of language etc.

For a lucky coincidence, two long term projects of mine reached completion almost at the same time.

You can therefore read on the 2017 issue of the Journal of World Philosophies the (Open Access) papers on philosophy of language which are the result of a project led by Malcolm Keating and myself (see here). I am grateful to the journal’s editor, Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach for her help and support throughout the process.

On the 2017 issue Kervan you can read the lead papers on epistemology of testimony, printed cultures and conceptualisation of sexuality which are the result of the 2013 Coffee Break Conference held in Turin and edited by Daniele Cuneo, Camillo Formigatti and myself. I am grateful to the journal’s editor, Mauro Tosco for his help and support throughout the process.

Enjoy and please let me know your comments and criticisms!

The Deontic Nature of Language

According to the Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā approach to language, the sentence meaning is “something to be done” (kārya). In other words, unlike for Nyāya authors, sentences do not convey the existence of something, but rather that something should be done. Sentences which look as if they were conveying a descriptive statements should be interpreted as supplementing a (at times implicit) prescriptive one. For instance “It is hot here” is a supplement of “Please, open the window” and “Vāyu is the swiftest deity” is a supplement of “One should sacrifice to Vāyu”.

How does language work?

Meanings of Words and Sentences in Mīmāṃsā

Mīmāṃsakas subscribe to the idea that words convey word-meanings, and thus refute the Bhartṛharian holism. The relation between a word as meaningful unit and its meaning is fixed, as it is proved by our common experience of words, and it 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?

The Mīmāṃsā approach to the sentence meaning as something to be done

According to Mīmāṃsā authors, and unlike Nyāya ones, Vedic sentences do not convey the existence of something, but rather that something should be done. This means that the entire Veda is an instrument of knowledge only as regards duties and cannot be falsified through sense-perception, inference, etc. No Mīmāṃsā author, for instance, could ever blame a scientist for reaching a conclusion that clashes with data found in the Veda.