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.
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.
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”.
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?
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.
From Word Meanings to Sentence Meaning:
Different Perspectives in Indian Philosophy of Language
The reflection on language and its structures was a major component of the Sanskritic intellectual horizon, intimately connected with the broader epistemological and soteriological concerns of different schools. This led to the emergence of various conflicting philosophical views on the nature of the cognition obtained from language (śābdabodha). In this respect, a pivotal issue is how padārthas (the meanings/referents of words) relate to vākyārtha (the meaning/referent of the sentence). During this one-day colloquium, the focus will especially be on the views set forth by the Pūrva-Mīmāṃsā philosophers (Bhāṭṭa and Prābhākara), the Buddhists, the Grammarians, and the theoreticians of Alaṃkāraśāstra, and on the reconstruction of the debate as it developed in the course of the first millennium CE.
Date: November 11, 2016
Time: 9:30 am – 6:00 pm
Veṅkaṭanātha is an important milestone for the reconstruction of the history of Indian philosophy. In fact, he is a historical figure and the reconstruction of his thought is also facilitated by the contextual knowledge already available about the times, the cultural and geographical milieu, and the religious tradition related to him.
At the beginning of his chapter on sentence meaning, Kumārila sets the problem of what is the meaning-bearer in the case of a sentence (see this post). Later in the chapter, he will discuss sphoṭa, apoha and then present his abhihitānvayavāda, but first he discusses in general the possibility of a sentence-meaning. There can be no sentence-meaning out of the sum of the word-meanings, since those are instantaneous and cannot connect (kā 6–8). The same applies to their cognitions (kā 9). Further, neither words (pada) nor the concepts evoked by them (tadbuddhi) can really connect, so that a sentence-meaning is stricto sensu impossible.
arthāpatti is recognised as a separate instrument of knowledge (pramāṇa) almost only by Mīmāṃsakas. Śabara’s discussion of it is interesting, but short, so that Kumārila’s one is really the reference point for all future authors accepting or criticising arthāpatti as a pramāṇa.
…because it is so difficult to determine whether they have a truth-value. This point is acknowledged in the contemporary debate on deontic logic:
A fundamental issue of deontic logic is Jorgensen’s dilemma, as noted by Jorgensen. On the one hand, there are inferences involving norm sentences such as ‘you should stay‘ or ‘you may leave‘ in our lives; therefore there should be a logic dealing with them. On the other hand, these sentences express orders or permissions and do not have tuth values: therefore, there cannot be such a logic. A dilemma arises. (Ju and Liang 2015, section 1)
Out of probably similar reasons, also within Indian philosophy almost no school focused on the logic of prescriptions. Even within the only one which did, Pūrva Mīmāṃsā, some authors then moved back towards the safer ground of understanding prescriptions as descriptions. Again, in the words of Ju and Liang:
To solve this dilemma, many philosophers have proposed a distinction between two different uses of norm sentences: descriptive and prescriptive uses. In the descriptive way, norm sentences are used to state what agents ought to do; they can be true or false. […] Deontic logic is ‘legalized’ in this way. (Ibid.)
In this sense, trying to “legalize” deontic logic is a way to deal with it and to attribute truth values to it. Kumārila went a little bit in this direction when he stated that prescriptions refer to the future (which is still beyond the precinct of application of truth values, but not as much as the deontic domain, which will never be). Maņḍana went much further and claimed that, e.g.,
O x / you desire y (“You ought to do x if you desire y”)
is tantamount to:
x is a means to realise y
Why so? Because of the dilemma mentioned above, but probably also because Maṇḍana was in part closer to Vedānta than to Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and was in this sense keen to avoid the commitment to sādhyavākyārthavāda, i.e., to the theory according to which all sentences can only convey a prescriptive meaning.
I am grateful to Bama Srinivasan, who sent me a copy of Ju and Liang’s article.