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?

A basic introduction to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta

(I have been asked to write a short introduction to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and would like to test it on you, dear readers. Any comment or criticism would be more than welcome!)

In its full-fledged form, the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (henceforth VV) is a Vedāntic school, thus one which accepts the authority of the Upaniṣads, the Brahmasūtra and the Bhagavadgītā and which recognises a form of God as brahman (on the various ways of understanding God in India, see here). The full-fledged VV accepts also further groups of texts, namely on the one hand the Pañcarātra (a group of Vaiṣṇava texts prescribing personal and temple rituals, see Leach 2012, and, here) and on the other the Tamil devotional poems collected in the Divyaprabandham.

Is the use of arguments from authority “irrational”?

Basically, I would say no, since there are topics for which it is meaningful and rational to resort to arguments from authority. To name an example, if I want to know how you feel, the best thing to do is to ask you.

But even if you don’t agree, let me point to the distinction between

  • the use of such arguments as a way to close a discussion (e.g., “It is the case that X, because an authoritative source said it”)
  • the use of such arguments as part of a discussion or as opening a discussion (e.g., “An authoritative source tells us that X, how shall we understand it?”)

Understanding false sentences

For Mīmāṣakas, a non-defeated belief counts as knowledge as long as the opposite is proven. This means that according to Mīmāṃsakas, for the Veda, the absence of defeating conditions is in itself equivalent to its truth. from Art.com
This, however, does not amount to its truth from the point of view of a theory which considers only justified true belief as knowledge. Incidentally, the Mīmāṃsā’s refusal to distinguish between justified belief and knowledge offers a way out of a difficulty found in every account of linguistic communication as an instrument of knowledge, i.e. the problem of how we can understand false utterances (see Chakrabarti 1986, Matilal 1990:61-8, Mohanty 1992:253-5, Ganeri 1999:18-25). Roughly, the problem lies in how we can understand that there is a snake in the next room after hearing the sentence “there is a snake in the next room” although there is no snake in the next room. Linguistic communication is an instrument of knowledge, but the belief that there is a snake in the next room cannot amount to knowledge. How can this content be possibly conveyed? In order to justify that we understand false sentences, Indian theories of linguistic communication as an instrument of knowledge would need a (preceding) status of non-committed awareness of the meaning, claim the authors listed above.
However, this is not needed in the case of Mīmāṃsā. Mīmāṃsakas would describe this situation by saying that our initial knowledge of the presence of a snake in the next room is later defeated as soon as we see that there is no snake there.

Body and self from the viewpoint of the ritual’s justification

The trigger for a discussion about the distinction of body and self in Mīmāṃsā is not or not primarily the polemic with the Buddhists, but rather the need to justify the validity of ritual prescriptions. In particular, a sentence, the yajñāyudhivākya `sentence about the one who bears the weapons of sacrifice’ identifies the entity being endowed with the weapons which consist in the sacrifice itself with the one which will reach heaven.
The problem is that the entity which carries these weapons is the body — and the body will clearly not reach heaven, since it will be burnt.
Interestingly, bodily resurrection seems not to have ever been taken into account as an option, so that the resulting dualism is much more radical than in a Christian milieu: Mīmāṃsā authors plainly agree that the body will not go to heaven and that the sentence should rather be read as addressing in fact the real agent of the sacrifice, which is not the body, but the self.
This, however, has an important consequence, namely that the self is identified with the real agent beyond the body’s acts. This makes Mīmāṃsā authors start far away from the Upaniṣadic, Sāṅkhya and Vedāntic ideas of an underlying self which is untouched by change and action.
Thus, Sacred Texts like the above sentence suggest that there is a self. Mīmāṃsā authors point also to further evidences, first and foremost our I-cognitions, that is, the cognition we have of an “I” whenever we refer to ourselves. Objectors can easily contend that “I” is used in sentences which in fact refer to the body, such as “I am tall”, thus concluding that this evidence is valueless. Mīmāṃsā authors answer that metaphorical usages of “I” as referring to the body do not rule out that it usually refers to the subject. Again, this claim bases on the idea that the Mīmāṃsā subject is not a changeless and super-individual entity, but that it is a changing and dynamic person, which can be rightly described in I-sentences such as “I am bright” or perhaps even “I am a scholar of Greek philosophy”.

Studying philosophy without its history is like thinking you can swim without touching water

Studying philosophy through its history is one of the few elements of my intellectual biography I have been adding again and again to all versions of my cv (and I have written many!) and I really believe that philosophy needs to be linked to its history and that history of philosophy needs to engage philosophically with its contents. Now, the last claim is almost incontroversial, since all historians of philosophy agree that they need to be (at least: also) scholars of philosophy.

The first claim, instead, encounters frequent objections. The last time I read one such objections, it came from a younger colleagues suggesting that one should rather weight the independent strength of an argument. This is an admirable task to undertake, but I wonder how one will be able to appraise an argument unless one has been training herself in their history. I might be too pessimistic, but let me be skeptic about anyone’s autonomous philosophical capacities.
Ibn al-Nafīs might be right and an isolated child might be able to refine his faculties on a lonely island until he can rival with learned people. But can this happen also in our infotainment-polluted world? I doubt it. Without history, a self-proclaimed philosopher will just lack the depth to appreciate the degree of innovation of her ideas, possibly thinking she is a genius only to discover at the first journal rejection that several people before her have already discussed the same argument centuries back.

On Ibn al-Nafīs you might want to read Marco Lauri’s forthcoming article on Confluence and, meanwhile, this presentation.

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.

Linguistic Communication as an Instrument of Knowledge: A panel

I came back last week from Athens, were I had organised together with Malcolm Keating a panel on Linguistic Communication as an instrument of knowledge. I ended up framing the problem according to four basic questions, namely 1) What do we know? , 2) How (through which instrument of knowledge) do we know it?, 3) What is the role of language as a medium?, 4) What is the role of the social context?