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Indian Philosophy of Language

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Malcolm Keating’s research is centred on Indian philosophy, in particular Mīmāṃsā and other orthoprax Indian traditions. His focus is on the philosophy of language and related topics such as epistemology and logic. He is concerned with how hearers interpret non-literal speech acts, the epistemic status of testimony, and the relationship between inferential and interpretive principles. His work seeks to cross cultural and disciplinary boundaries, drawing on both Sanskrit and Anglophone philosophy, and engaging with philosophical, aesthetic, and grammatical traditions in India. Here he discusses why philosophy of language is important, the ancient roots of linguistic philosophy, literal vs non-literal meanings, artha, the importance of Sanskrit, how Indian philosophy deals with the primary/secondary meaning distinction, three conditions necessitating secondary meaning, complications of bitextuality and polysemy, suggested meaning and speaker’s intention, Buddhism and Jainism, whether Jainism is committed to a dialetheistic paraconsistent logic, Kashmiri Mukulabhaṭṭa, reading Indian and Chinese philosophy with an eye towards finding different questions, what Indian philosophy of language contributes to other philosophy of language, and why a cross-disciplinary and historical and transcultural approach to philosophy is important.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Malcolm Keating: My undergraduate degree was in English and Spanish literature, but my interests, both literary and theoretical, skewed philosophical. I read a lot of Jorge Luis Borges (La biblioteca de Babel is still one of my favorite stories) and literary criticism, but at that point didn’t think about studying philosophy, I think because I didn’t know philosophy of language was a thing. I envisioned philosophy as mostly ethics and metaphysics. I went on to do some training in other languages, a bit of Greek and Hebrew, some studies in biblical literature, but my questions kept being broader than the particularities of individual texts. I wanted to know, to take an example, what a speech act was, why we would think of speech in this way, etc., and not simply how to apply something called “speech act theory” to a specific text. Eventually I got clued in to the existence of philosophers taking questions about language seriously. I read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and while I don’t consider myself a Wittgensteinian, it was through that book that I was introduced to philosophy of language. I enrolled in a master’s degree at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and from there, after taking a year to begin studying Sanskrit through some courses at the University of Chicago, I began my work at the University of Texas at Austin to study Sanskrit philosophy with Stephen Phillips. I’m fortunate, that my interests in pragmatics, especially in the context of Indian philosophy, allow me to read a lot of poetry and still think about fiction, metaphor, and the relationship between language and religious texts.

3:AM: You work in philosophy of language and for outsiders this may need explaining. Why is philosophy of language important, why not leave it to linguistics – and what are the questions you’re concerned with that require it?

MK: Well, I think philosophy of language is important for a whole range of reasons that run from questions about what it is to be a human person to hot political topics of the day. I can often motivate student interest in philosophy of language by giving them examples of tweets and asking them questions. What did the person mean by those 140 (now 280) characters? How do you know that’s what they meant? What did that tweet accomplish? Give them a tweet with a word that’s considered a slur, or by a person who has political power and says something false or inflammatory, and other questions occur. How do we determine the boundaries between what the person meant to say and do and what the words accidentally triggered in you, the hearer? Is such a boundary intelligible? What is the relevant context for interpreting what they meant and what they said? How do we figure that out? And then there are the ethical and metaphysical implications (I’m more open to ethics and metaphysics than I was as an undergraduate). Is a speaker morally responsible for accidental effects of their speech, if it wasn’t intended? And, for that matter, what moral responsibilities are there for the intentional effects of speech?

Anyway, that’s one quick route to see why philosophy of language is important. But if we can stick with Twitter for another moment, consider tweetbots, which have come to play a large role in political discussion. And here I don’t just mean in the US–I’m in Singapore and I’ve been seeing news about tweetbots with relationship to upcoming Malaysian elections. A tweetbot is an algorithim which generates expressions. They don’t just tweet out sentences, they also respond to other tweets. Now, in the Western tradition of philosophy, a lot of early philosophers distinguished between humans and animals or machines on the basis of linguistic competence. Descartes does, for instance–he thinks that animals and machines can’t learn languages. In the Indian context, it’s a bit different–Sanskritic philosophers frequently talked about parrots “talking” as case studies which pose difficulties for our accounts of how testimony works, even though they do want to make some distinctions between people and animals. In any case, whether animals can learn languages or not (which depends on what we want to say a language is), in the case of a tweetbot, a lot of people want to say that the bot doesn’t really mean anything. That’s because to be able to mean something with an expression requires having a mind with concepts that one expresses through language. But while human beings may be the creatures on this planet with the most sophisticated language capacities, it’s increasingly clear that we aren’t the only ones that can use signs paired with signifiers to get other creatures to understand and to do things. And so with the increasing sophistication of algorithims to engage linguistically with us, we are forced to reflect on the relationship between language and thought and language and being a human person.

Those are fairly quick, but I think it gets at why philosophy of language is important, in the broad sense of asking questions about how language works and what language is. But you ask, as do a lot of people I encounter when I tell them what I do, what is the relationship between philosophy of language and linguistics. You ran an interview recently with Emma Borg, whose work I admire, which pushed back a bit on that distinction. And I think I’d want to do the same. A little while ago, two linguists came to visit our campus. When I explained my work to them they both said, “Oh, you’re a linguist!” And if disciplinary boundaries are determined in part by the papers you read and the journals you publish in, there’s certainly overlap (I’ve published in the Journal of Pragmatics, for instance). I can’t do what I do without knowing the work of Frits Staal and Paul Kiparsky, both of whom work(ed) in linguistics as well as Sanskrit and Indology. But even though in my forthcoming book I cite linguists and appeal to distinctions found in linguistics literature, something I do differently is to engage with Indian philosophers. Many linguists I know might be looking at Sanskrit texts as corpora. But I want to think alongside Bhartṛhari and Kumārila, and it’s in the context of philosophers (and also people working in South Asian Studies and Religious Studies) where I can do that.

3:AM: You’ve looked at the literal/non-literal distinction in Indian philosophy. Who’d have thought linguistic philosophy was a thing back then! ‘Artha’ is a key Sanskrit term isn’t it, and jnana. Can you begin by setting out what the question is that we’re dealing with here, and what and when the relevant period of Indian philosophy is? Who are the key philosophers and the three main textual traditions involved in this?

MK: Who’d have thought, yes! It’s something which I wish more people would think. The origins of modern Western linguistics begin with British colonials “discovering” the generative grammar of Pāṇini (dating to 4th to 6th century BCE). Given that, I think more of us (myself included, early on in my career) should have thought it! Take linguist Larry Horn’s book, A Natural History of Negation–he is aware of not just Pāṇini but Mīmāṃsā and Buddhist theories of negation which are very sophisticated. We can’t be familiar with the intellectual traditions of every culture (I’m certainly not), but given that some of our oldest literature is in Sanskrit and that human beings have been speaking languages for a very long time, I don’t think we should be that surprised that there would be people reflecting on what language is and how it works, well before Russell and Frege. And in the 1960s and the work of B.K. Matilal, English-language philosophers have had resources to make them well aware that Indian philosophers have been doing sophisticated stuff in language (in Sanskrit, but not only that language–there’s Pāli, Prakrit, Tamil, and other languages too). I should add that Chinese philosophy also has a very long history of linguistic philosophy, dating back to around the time of Pāṇini, and that anyone interested should look into Mohist logic. I’m sure such reflections may be found in other contexts, but I can’t speak to them.

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[B.K. Matilal]

That said, there are a lot of questions in linguistic philosophy in Sanskrit texts (the ones that I work with), but the questions that I am personally working on (in the classical period, roughly 200 to 1300 CE) have to do with how people have cognitions on the basis of speech. These cognitions are called śabda-bodha, and Indian philosophers are concerned with how, when someone says “Bring the book,” for instance, I have a cognition, or a mental event, which is of my need to bring a book. Speaking broadly, Indian philosophy is concerned with commands, requests, injunctions, as a theoretical starting point, and not so much assertions. We learn language by hearing various different commands and successfully fulfilling them. (You might think of Wittgenstein’s “Slab!” here.) Over time, after hearing “Bring the cow,” “Bring the horse,” “Feed the cow,” “Feed the horse,” language-learners will come to pair words “bring,” “cow,” “feed,” “horse,” with the appropriate objects in the world. This happens through a process of inference. The objects in the world are artha, a term which has a wide semantic range including “object,” “meaning,” and “aim.” Indian thinkers tend to be referentialists, that is, they think the meaning of a word like “cow” is its referent, which varies depending on the view (it could be a universal, a particular, or something else.) This summary excludes various Buddhist theories which, in part due to their metaphysics, tend to eschew this account. One big question, then, is how do certain spoken combinations of words generate cognitions in hearers? The answer has to do with what individual words mean, how they are combined in context, and what a speaker’s intention is (on which more below).

The other term you mention, jñana, is often translated as “knowledge,” but as Sanskritists have known for a while, and some recent work in experimental philosophy based in Sanskrit-related languages has discovered, there can be false jñāna. So it’s often best to translate that term as “cognition,” which in the context of language is the result of someone’s utterance. When someone speaks truly, as in assertion, or aptly, as in a command, then I come to have a genuine cognition. Sanskrit philosophy of language is bound up with what contemporary philosophy would consider epistemology and philosophy of mind. For example, among thinkers known as Mīmāṃsakas, who belong to the “Mīmāṃsā” textual tradition, injunctive sentences such as “The one who desires heaven should perform the agnihotra ritual” are sources of knowledge, or epistemic instruments (pramāṇa-s). They result in true cognitions, and these are cognitions which we cannot get any other way, since we cannot observe heaven, and we can’t make inferences about it (due to not being in a position to observe it). Now, Mīmāṃsā is a textual tradition concerned with Vedic hermeneutics. Even at the early date of a philosopher like Kumārila Bhaṭṭa (around 7th century CE), a lot of Vedic ritual traditions were lost. So he is concerned to systematize interpretive practices around Vedic texts which describe and command these rituals. He’s concerned with hermeneutics, but he’s also concerned with epistemology, since these commands tell people how to act–and moral imperatives aren’t derivable from observation or inference.

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[Kumārila Bhaṭṭa]

But Mīmāṃsā is only one of many philosophical viewpoints (darśana-s) which existed in ancient and classical India. There is Nyāya, or “Logic,” as well as Vedānta, Buddhism, and a number of others. This is one “science” or śāstra, a group of textual intellectual traditions, each of which self-consciously relates back to a root aphoristic text. Another śāstra is grammar, or vyakāraṇa-śāstra, which I’ve alluded to in the work of Pāṇini. (For formal semanticists who are interested in what Sanskrit philosophy has to offer, they should take a look at grammar, for instance Brendan Gillon’s paper, “Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī and Linguistic Theory,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 2007, 35:445-468.) Finally, the other śāstra which includes linguistic philosophy is one that not a lot of philosophers trained in the analytic tradition are aware of, although I think that’s changing. It is known as alaṃkāra-śāstra, or the science of figuration. You might compare this to poetics and aesthetics, since these thinkers are concerned with questions like what is a metaphor, and what is the relationship of metaphorical meaning to ordinary meaning? as well as how do hearers cognize aesthetic moods in literary works, and what is the relationship between emotions and aesthetics? All three of these sciences, or disciplines, have things to say about philosophy of language, and they often draw on one another in innovative ways, such as in the work of the thinker I wrote my dissertation on, Mukula Bhaṭṭa.

3:AM: How important is Sanskrit language in this work? I guess the religious prominence of Sanskrit can’t lead to specific philosophical commitments about its referential capacities can it, given that Nāgārjuna uses it and Buddhists reject the idea of a language having an inherent connection between it and reality?

MK: Sanskrit is important because it forms the primary basis of linguistic reflection. To give a concrete example, an example of a “secondary” meaning (something beyond the ordinary meaning) occurs in the Sanskrit sentence chatrino yānti, which means “The umbrella-holders go.” This sentence is used in a context when a single umbrella-holder is shading a royal person while a retinue follows them. But because the word “umbrella-holder” is in the plural, thinkers like Kumārila and Mukula argue that what is meant by it is not many people holding umbrellas but a single umbrella-holder plus those associated with him. The primary, we might say default, meaning would be the additive plural (many umbrella holders) but in the right context, a secondary meaning of the associative plural (one umbrella holder and their associates) is possible. In English, though, we can’t get that second reading because we don’t have associative plurals, save for pronouns like “we” and maybe some names. So some analysis is language-relative.

But as to broader, language-independent philosophical commitments, even though Buddhists are late to using Sanskrit for philosophical reflection, beginning with Pāli instead, thinkers like Nāgārjuna have competing views with brahminical thinkers such as Mīmāṃsakas. And even further, within the brahiminical groups (those who follow the Vedas) there is a lot of debate, so Sanskrit as a language, just like any natural language, doesn’t entail a set of metaphysical commitments. Likewise, Sanskrit speakers at that time were well aware of other languages and language-speakers who are able to get around in the world. Some philosophers did want to argue for the priority of Sanskrit, so that other languages only had referential capacity in virtue of their being somehow related to Sanskrit, but that position doesn’t win out. Sanskrit is also prominent religiously insofar as it’s part of Vedic rituals, and correct interpretation and pronunciation of that language is very important. This is a historical explanation, too, for some of the early sophistication of linguistic reflection in the Sanskrit context. But I can’t emphasize enough that Sanskrit isn’t the only language in which philosophical and literary reflection occurs in India. Prakrit, Pāli, and Tamil should not be ignored, even though I myself am not in a position to investigate these traditions in the original texts.

3:AM: How does Indian philosophy of language in general handle the Primary and Secondary meaning distinction? Does Indian philosophy take all non-literal meanings to be secondary? Can you say something about the different ways we are to understand secondary meaning here?

MK: I think one difficulty in this question is the ambiguity of what English-speakers (let alone English-speaking philosophers) mean by “literal.” When I say “All the beer is in the fridge, am I literally saying that all of the beer (in the entire universe) is in the fridge? Or, with Kent Bach’s example, if I say “There’s beer in the fridge,” and you open the door to see a puddle of beer on a shelf, but no cans, does that mean my sentence was literally true? Suppose I say “It’s raining,” can that sentence fail to be true literally speaking, since it is always raining somewhere and I haven’t specified a time and place?

Because “literal” is a contentious term in analytic philosophy, I prefer to start with the distinctions that Indian philosophers make and see what connections we might be able to make later. The main distinction there is between primary (mukhya or abhidhā) and secondary meaning, where the latter has a whole range of technical terms (upacāra, gauṇavṛtti, lakṣaṇā, etc.) A simplest way to put things is in terms of functions that result in cognitions. The primary function takes as its input a sound (words) and results in a cognition of a referent. The secondary function takes that cognition of a referent as its starting point and, under appropriate conditions, yields another cognition with some semantic content, a different referent. So, for instance, if I say “Ajay is a bulldozer,” the primary meanings which you cognize due to the primary function include the person Ajay and the thing which is a bulldozer, in a predication relationship. But since people aren’t actually bulldozers, the secondary function takes bulldozer and results in your cognizing properties that bulldozers have: they plough over things without stopping, they are impervious to reason, etc. That example is what we might call a metaphor, but consider this case: “The cow should be tied up.” Here, some Indian philosophers (Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsakas following Kumārila) argue that nouns primarily refer to universals like cowhood. Because of this semantic theory, the meaning that a particular cow should be tied up counts as a secondary meaning. But that sentence isn’t what we could consider a metaphor. So secondary meaning might be considered a broad bucket into which pragmatic phenomena are put–things which are near-side (sensitive to context but constrained by semantics) or far-side (sensitive to context but optional and/or post-propositional).

Now, just with this one example, we can see that your theory of primary meaning is going to impact your theory of secondary meaning. So we can’t speak of a single Indian theory of secondary meaning. The Bhāṭṭa theory I’ve just described is only a sketch of a general view–the details differ among thinkers–and it is contested by Naiyāyikas, Prābhākaras, and grammarians like Bhartṛhari. And when we get into very subtle linguistic cases–not ones like tying up cows, but ones involving poetry–then thinkers in the Alaṅkāra tradition start making very fine-grained distinctions involving the structure of comparison, the relationship between background knowledge and connotations, and so on. This means that Indian philosophy is in the same position as analytic philosophy, in that there’s no answer to how it handles the literal/non-literal distinction in general (in the analytic tradition, there are relevance theorists, Griceans, minimalists, contextualists, speech act pluralists, etc).

3:AM: You say that all varieties of secondary meaning are necessitated by three conditions: can you say something about what these are and how do they help address the complications of bitextuality and polysemy?

MK: There are three conditions that Indian philosophers typically recognize as individually necessary and together sufficient for secondary meaning. Keep in mind that we are still talking about śabdabodha, or cognitions that arise from speech. So these are conditions that have to do with language comprehension. They are

1..An incongruity or obstacle

2. A relationship between primary and secondary meaning

3.A warrant for the secondary meaning, usually a speaker’s motive

I can give you an example of how one Indian thinker analyzes these conditions. Mukula Bhaṭṭa, who lived around the tenth century CE, argues that incongruity can be a matter of a problem construing words as a sentence or a problem with the sentence given what we know of the speaker. In fact, he thinks there are seven factors involved in identifying incongruity: speaker, sentence, the expressed meaning (like “what is said”), place, time, state, and individuality (what he means by the last two isn’t completely clear, but has something to do with the nature of things being referred to). All of these factors can be combined in various ways (speaker and sentence together, speaker and place, etc.) So one incongruity involving construing words in a sentence is exemplified by “The village is on the Ganges,” where if we take “Ganges” in its primary sense, which is for the river Ganges, the village would be directly upon the river (and it would sink!). So we understand “Ganges” to mean “bank of the Ganges” This is a recognizable case of metonymy based on contiguity. But we could also take a sentence which works perfectly well, and based on what we know about the speaker, understand it ironically. Mukula’s examples involve poetry, but a simple one could be my saying, “I hate masala dosa” when you know for a fact it’s one of my favorite foods.

But in order to understand a secondary meaning from a primary there must be some relationship between the two. In the case of the dosa, Mukula would say it’s opposition–I mean the opposite, maybe something like “I love masala dosa” or “I don’t hate masala dosa” (he isn’t specific on this, and how irony works, and what speakers are committed to is an important question). In the case of the bank of the Ganges, he identifies the relationship as being one of contiguity, which is what I expect modern linguists working on metonymy might say. He gives five possible major relationships, but some of them have sub-types. The crucial point is that we aren’t understanding just anything from the primary meaning, but a second meaning which is in some way accessible from the primary meaning.

Finally, there has to be a reason that the speaker is using the expression in this way. At least for Mukula, he is concerned with people having intentions, but in other philosophical contexts, thinkers consider speech acts which lack speakers (written texts or an oral tradition taken to have no origin). Mukula identifies two motives: speaking in a conventional way or speaking in a novel manner. The latter explains things like poetry, although I take him to mean any kind of unusual new use of language. Conventional expressions are what we might call “dead metaphors,” things which we don’t actively think of as having a secondary meaning, but which, on reflection, we can see that they originated from an earlier primary use. Even “back then,” in the 8th century CE when Mukula is writing, people were aware of linguistic shift, and the difficulty in pinning down the etymology of an expression.

You mention “bitextuality” and “polysemy.” The first is a term of art due to Yigal Bronner in the Department of Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He works on Sanskrit poetics and has coined this term for the Sanskrit term śleṣa, which often gets translated as “punning.” The problem with “punning” as a translation is that in English, save for some very rare cases (like James Joyce), puns are silly. But in Sanskrit, there was a tradition of writing poetry with multiple registers of meaning which often resulted in a further metaphorical meaning. There’s a poem which, read one direction, narrates the story of the Mahābhārata, and the reverse, the Rāmayāṇa. Sanskrit is able to do some sophisticated things because the writing system retains phonetic changes at word boundaries. So while in English, when we speak we might drop the “g” when a word ends in “-ing,” thought we typically wouldn’t record that in writing. But Sanskrit has a sophisticated set of rules for phonetic changes, and many of these changes are many-to-one. That is, a written ā could be disambiguated as a+a,  ā+a, a+ā, or  ā+ā. Between these changes (called sandhi) and individual word types having multiple meanings (polysemy), a single stanza can have multiple readings.

One problem for Sanskrit thinkers, which Bronner points out, is which reading is “first,” and what it is that prompts our awareness that there is a second, third, or further reading. Sometimes there can be subtle cues in the poem, but it isn’t as obvious as a case like “Ajay is a bulldozer” where a reading is clearly false. After all, we need to have two simultaneously acceptable meanings. My own work hasn’t focused on bitextuality in great detail, although I think it’s fascinating. It requires a high level of sophistication in Sanskrit as well as a knowledge of Sanskrit poetry. Hopefully, though, more philosophers will come along with these skills who are interested in joining up with Sanskritists and South Asianists on these topics.

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[ Ānandavardhana ]

3:AM: What were the main issues for Indian philosophers regarding suggested meaning and speaker’s intention?

MK: “Suggested meaning” is a common translation of the term dhvani, which originally referred to the reverberating resonance of a drum or musical instrument. The idea of suggestion due to Ānandavardhana, ca 9th century CE, is that words have a reverberation of meaning which is not due to the primary or the secondary meaning. I’m not sure therer’s a neat comparison to analytic philosophy here. We might think of “connotation” but Ānandavardhana has a very broad phenomenon in mind, which arises from phonemes, words, compounds, sentences, and entire discourse units. He’s clear that it’s a kind of meaning (artha) but later thinkers like Abhinavagupta take it in a more aestheticized and emotive direction. In any case, Ānandavardhana thinks that there is a kind of meaning and kind of meaning function beyond primary and secondary. He thinks everyone admits this phenomenon exists but he’s the first to identify that something else should be posited as a linguistic capacity, or function.

Take the sentence, “Pārvatī counted the petals on the lotus in her hand.” This is from a poem, in which Pārvatī, a beautiful goddess (the favorite examples of these philosophers tend to be love poetry) is hearing about her bethrothal to Śiva, a handsome and powerful god. Instead of looking at the messenger, she looks at a flower in her hand. Ānandavardhana says that this sentence (part of a longer verse) suggests that Pārvatī is shy, and by that it suggests that she is in love. Now, he argues, this is certainly not expressed by the primary meaning of the sentence. Nor is there any obstacle which prevents us from understanding the sentence and forces a figurative meaning. This is just a description. But the whole point is to suggest, connote, etc., that Pārvatī is in love. In fact, he says, that’s the intention of the poet–any other aspects of the verse which are expressed are subsidiary to this goal, which is to convey that Pārvatī is in love.

This view, that poetry’s main purpose is to suggest meanings, and to suggest meanings like being in love (which is a rasa, or an aesthetic “flavor,” “taste”) comes to dominate Sanskrit poetic theory. But before that happens around the 12th century CE, several philosophers argue that we can give an account of suggestion in terms of ordinary things like inference or the secondary function. The thinker Mukula I mentioned earlier, might explain the incongruity in this verse in a very broad sense: it is incongruous with being in love that one doesn’t pay attention to news about one’s beloved. But we know, as a matter of our background knowledge, that Pārvatī should be in love with Śiva. So we resolve the incongruity by understanding her apparent distraction as shyness. To contemporary philosophers of language, this might sound like inference to the best explanation (IBE), which is often given as an account of how pragmatic inferences work. However, despite my having said something similar in previously published work, I don’t think Mukula’s analysis is quite like this. I now think he finds the inferences in poetry to be much stronger than IBE. It’s more determinate, and is closer to inference to the only explanation (as Elisa Freschi and Nirmalya Guha have both said in rejoinders to my work). However, I do still think that Mukula is explaining what appears to be suggestion as a kind of inferential reasoning known as arthāpatti, often translated as “presumption,” or “postulation.” It’s just that postulation isn’t identical with IBE. I hope, in a forthcoming edited volume of translations and essays on arthāpatti, to get a bit clearer on just what it is–it’s crucially implicated in linguistic interpretation for many Indian philosophers.

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3:AM: Buddhism and Jainism reject the primary secondary meaning distinction. What are the reasons for this? Is it because of their metaphysical commitments?

MK: Buddhism and Jainism are both traditions which reject the cultural and philosophical dominance of the Vedas. As with any other -ism, in Indian philosophy and elsewhere, we want to be careful to look at individual thinkers and texts and not make too quick generalizations. It’s okay to talk about what “empiricists” think to first-year undergraduates, maybe, but very soon we want to get to specifics. So with that caveat in mind, we can say roughly that Buddhism has a kind of error theory about our ordinary experiences of and talk about the world. That error theory varies a lot from thinker to thinker, but it means that when I use words like “I” and believe I’m referring to a enduring entity, I am mistaken. There is actually a lot of work that can be done in relationship to Buddhist philosophy of language, especially in the realm of what modern philosophers call “pragmatics.” Roy Tzohar has recently published a book with OUP on one Buddhist theory of metaphor, showing that Buddhists are drawing on the brahminical concepts, but using them to undermine metaphysically realist assumptions.

When I say they deny the primary-secondary distinction, what I mean is they reject the picture on which the primary meaning is the referent in the world, and the secondary meaning is a different referent which is understood because of reference failure (“Ajay is a bulldozer”) or some other problem. How the details of linguistic understanding work out, though, is a really difficult topic. A further fascinating aspect of Buddhist philosophy of language and “pragmatics” is that Dharmakīrti’s work (he is an important Buddhist philosopher) is influential for Ānandavardhana who I mentioned earlier in relationship to suggestion as well as critics of Ānandavardhana, such as Mahima Bhaṭṭa.

As for Jainism, that’s an even more, dare I say, underdeveloped area needing contemporary work. Apparently Jainas did a lot of work in poetics, but much of it remains untranslated and I haven’t had the time to investigate it carefully. However, Peter Flügel has done some work in this area, and he argues that Jainas have some normative principles about how people should speak which are analogous to Gricean maxims. However, These are not maxims which, when flouted lead to implicatures–rather they are conversational norms with ethical weight, since flouting them leads to harm. I expect that, going back to the political implications of speech, there is much to be learned from looking at Buddhist and Jaina considerations of speech from an ethical standpoint.

3:AM: Is Grahame Priest right to argue that Jainism is committed to a dialetheistic paraconsistent logic because of their reflections of language and their seven-fold schema?

MK: I am not an expert on Jainism and can’t take a strong position on this question. The only thing I’d say is that I’ve read differing views on this question, for instance, in the work of Piotr Balcerowicz and Jonardon Ganeri. My own methodology has evolved to be reticent about claiming any particular thinker (let alone an entire tradition, since “Jainism” is made up of individual thinkers) is committed to a view found in another philosophical context such as China or Europe. I would be surprised if connections weren’t found between different contexts, but I’d also be surprised if those contexts didn’t have significant differences in starting assumptions, etc.

3:AM: You’ve written about lakṣaṇā in the work of ninth-century Kashmiri Mukulabhaṭṭa in terms of the question: how do we use words to mean something else but not everything else. Can you sketch for us  Mukulabhaṭṭa’s account and why you find his approach so interesting?

MK: I’ve already talked a lor about Mukula above–I’m working on finishing my book on him, so it’s hard not to! The term lakṣaṇā in his context means “indication” or just a broad catch-all for everything from metonymy to irony to metaphor to punning (or bitextuality). What I found exciting about him when I first discovered his work in graduate school is that he is not a Naiyāyika or a Buddhist or a Mīmāṃsaka, but he a thinker drawing on a range of conceptual resources in order to argue for a view he found plausible.

I think a lot of philosophers have this picture of Indian philosophy as being a matter of “schools,” where one being a “Nyāya philosopher” means they are going to necessarily be committed to x, y, and z. Not only is that incorrect (there’s a lot of disagreement within “schools” and borrowing across them), but these individuals are thinkers in pursuit of the truth. They may have genre conventions which they are adhering to (as do we–ask anyone trying to publish in a journal) but that they are writing in a commentarial style doesn’t entail that they are merely writing footnotes on someone else’s work And while the “schools” do have basic starting assumptions, there’s a lot of creativity in working with what those entail.

So Mukula is someone who draws on grammarians like Pāṇini, Patañjali, Bhartṛhari, as well as Mīmāṃsā philosophers such as Śabara, Bhartṛmitra, Kumārila, and Prabhākara, and also poetic theorists like Udbhaṭa and Ānandavardhana. He’s an interdisciplinary thinker who has a poetic ear but is committed to the position that poetry must be intelligible as a human activity, like other cases of language. I found that compelling, and so I decided to work on his text. I was fortunate to have been preceeded in this by Lawrence McCrea at Cornell, who has shown Mukula’s importance historically for Sanskrit poetics and philosophy. In my own work, I’ve tried to show his broad philosophical importance. He identifies contextual features which influence the meanings of expressions, he proposes a novel theory of sentence meaning, and he tries to give a complete account of communication from word meaning, to sentence meaning, to poetic connotations. It’s a short, schematic work, but its creative reuse of earlier thinkers to resolve a new problem (what to do with Ānandavardhana’s theory of suggestion?) is fascinating.

3:AM: So in current philosophy language cognitivists and non-cognitivists disagree about whether metaphoric language have additional meanings to the literal one. Would this contemporary debate gain from awareness of distinctions and arguments found in classical Indian philosophy?

MK: The first thing I would say is that when I go to Indian philosophers with my own pre-conceived notions of what questions are important, I often come away disappointed or confused. For that reason, I’ve learned to read Indian philosophy–as well as other philosophical traditions like those found in China–with an eye towards finding different questions. Let me put this another way. If I go to Kumārila, whose discussion of secondary meaning in the Tantravārttika is hugely influential in Sanskrit philosophy, and I hope he will tell me whether metaphor is a matter of compositional semantics or psychology and action (as Lepore and Stone put it in their 2010 “Against Metaphorical Meaning”) I will be frustrated because there is not such a neat divide in Indian philosophy. Compositional semantics informs the Bhāṭṭa theory of sentence meaning, which Kumārila espouses, but it is also intimately bound up with psychology and action, since utterances prompt cognitions in an agent, and are grounded in their ability to prompt actions.

Apart from that, I think one of the fruitful aspects of looking into Indian philosophy of language–by which I want to include the sciences of grammar, philosophy, and poetic theory–is that they make a range of fine-grained distinctions among pragmatic phenomena. Often when talking about metaphor in the Western context, we start with expressions of the form, “x is y,” but this is only one grammatical expression of identification in Sanskrit. If philosophers are concerned with something they call “metaphor” that transcends natural languages, although it may have different manifestations within different such languages, it’s worth looking at a range of examples. So collecting examples of what Sanskrit thinkers considered “metaphorical” or “figurative” might help our thinking. That’s essentially a point about data collection.

But beyond that, we can see that Indian theorists looking at pragmatics made a range of distinctions we might want to consider. Suppose we take our “x is y” example again. We can identify x with y (“x is y”) but we can also compare (“x is like y”). That’s familiar. But in Sanskrit theory, there is recollection (“x reminds me of y”), inversion (“x is more important than y”), doubt (“is that an x? is it a y?”), representation (saying to x “y!”), and so on. It may be that these distinctions reduce to identification or comparison, but it’s worth stopping to inquire how, and why other thinkers might have made these distinctions.

3:AM: Does the argument about whether only sentences communicate qualified sentences that you find in the seventeenth century Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā work, the Mānameyodaya and three commentaries on the Śabdapariccheda in Kumārila Bhaṭṭa’s Ślokavārttika add new insights to contemporary debates in philosophy of language?

 MK: The debate you’re referring to is whether when someone says “fire!” hearers somehow understand a complete sentence, like “There is a fire!” or whether the single word can communicate an assertion. This debate in philosophy of language and linguistics is often characterized as the debate over subsentential ellipsis or discourse-initial ellipsis. In Kumārila’s text and commentaries, the discussion is over how two different cases are understood. One case is a question-and-answer conversation. One person asks, “Who is going?” and the second replies “the king.” Here, it seems like some linguistic material from the question is somehow imparted to the reply, so that “the king” expresses “The king is going.” The other case is the expression “door, door,” which is used when someone wants to ask or command that a door be closed. Here there is no other discourse material that we can draw from, and so there’s a question as to whether these two cases are different, and how they should be analyzed.

Two commentators (Sucarita Miśra and Pārthasārathi Miśra) on Kumārila, who brings up this issue give what seem to be different answers. The first seems to appeal to inference where there is a conditional, like “in all cases, if there is a noun, there must be a corresponding verb.” The second seems to appeal to postulation, discussed earlier, which doesn’t require a conditional, but merely the resolution of some incongruity. Historically, the Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsākas side with the second view, as we can see in the 17th century work you mention, but how they get there is an important question (and one which I’ve just scratched the surface of). Philosophically, it seems as if the first option is unsatisfactory–our conditional would need to be unrealistically precise, to account for each case, or it would underdetermine the solution (“close” or “shut” seem equally fine). But since postulation also seems to requires a unique solution, it is not immediately superior, even though no universal claim must be made.

This debate anticipates in a lot of ways the debate between Robert Stainton, Jason Stanley, Jason Merchant in the early 2000s over whether single word utterances can constitute assertions. Whether the Mīmāṃsā debate has something specific to contribute, I don’t know quite yet. I’ve written one paper in which I’ve looked carefully at a few important texts. But that’s a distance from drawing the kinds of connections necessary for Indian philosophy to intervene in contemporary debates. I’d rather take my time than attribute cool views to Indian thinkers which are really my own confabulations.

3:AM: Overall then, what are the main implications of the secondary primary distinction in Indian philosophy and does awareness of the way these philosophers deal with these issues provide us with new resources for philosophizing these issues that are not found in non-Indian philosophy?

MK: I think I’ve explained the implications of the primary/secondary distinction at length, but the takeaway that’s important is that there’s not just one such distinction, as its details depend on the commitments of the thinker in question (Kumārila versus Bhartṛhari versus Śālikanātha etc.).

As for resources, I get a bit uncomfortable with this line of questioning. It puts Indian philosophy in a double-bind, since if its resources are too far afield from Anglophone philosophy, it’s alien, and it doesn’t answer the right questions. On the other hand, if we find the same or very similar distinctions, then why bother reading Kumārila instead of Russell? I think that at one level, reading Indian philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Aztec philosophy–any philosophy which is not one’s own default context–is a good check for temporal and cultural hubris. I doubt that there is a grand march forward in philosophical progress (the range of knowledge of premodern Sanskrit thinkers puts me to shame) and I am skeptical that I’ve been born into the culture which has managed to wind up with the most truths.

I think it’s very possible that philosophers reading Indian thinkers with an open mind and willingness to shift perspectives will find resources for their own questions, or even new question that are more compelling. But I think that the resources are found not only in the conceptual distinctions but also in the epistemic approach to reading philosophy broadly.

3:AM: It struck me that there was a connection between Yablo’s recent work on ‘Aboutness’ and Kashmiri Mukulabhaṭṭa’s model of lakṣaṇā. You link it with contemporary linguist James Pustejovsky’s work. As a take home can you summarise why you think philosophy of language is important, especially in the face of criticism of philosophy generally and why your cross-disciplinary and historical and transcultural approach is important?

MK: I can see the connections you might make with Aboutness, since Mukula is concerned with how we might talk about the Ganges river in a few different ways with the same sentence type. By saying, “The village is on the Ganges,” I can be talking about its location close to the Ganges and distant from the Vitastā, I can be talking about its location close to the bank of the Ganges, and I can be talking about its being a very holy village, since it’s close to the holy Ganges. In my 2013 paper, I drew connections with Pustejovsky’s conception of sort-shifting, because I thought it as a good way to get at how Mukula’s system of relationships allowed for simultaneous constraints and creativity in polysemous expressions.

I think that, as you put it, a “cross-disciplinary and historical and transcultural approach” is important because of who we are as people. I’m skeptical that historically contingent disciplinary boundaries should respected as arbiters of what counts as important questions, so I want to talk to people who are not just in philosophy departments. I think that what you might call “temporal hubris” is dangerous, and reading what’s been written just in the last twenty to one hundred years is relatively myopic, given the length of human history. Ceteris paribis for cultural considerations. Why would I, as a philosopher of language, close myself off from other languages, other times, being studied in different ways?

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could suggest we all read to take us further into your philosophical world?

MK: The first four are secondary literature on Indian philosophy, and the fifth is a translation of an important Sanskrit text and commentary. I want to encourage people to read primary texts and not just what has been written about Indian thought.

Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar In Indian Philosophical Analysis

Matilal, Bimal Krishna, 1971, Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis, Oxford: Oxford University Press. New edition in 2005, Jonardon Ganeri (ed.).

The Teleology of Poetics in Medieval Kashmir

McCrea, Lawrence, 2008, The Teleology of Poetics in Medieval Kashmir, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

9780835672733: Indian Theories of Meaning (Adyar Library series)

Raja, K. Kunjunni, 1963, Indian Theories of Meaning (Series: The Adyar Library Series 91), Madras: Adyar Library and Research Centre

Indian Philosophy of Language

Siderits, Mark, 1991, Indian Philosophy of Language, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Cover: The <i>Dhvanyaloka</i> of Anandavardhana with the <i>Locana</i> of Abhinavagupta in HARDCOVER

Ānandavardhana, The Dhvanyāloka of Ānandavardhana with the Locana of Abhinavagupta, Daniel H.H. Ingalls (trans.), Number 49 in Harvard Oriental Series, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 31st, 2018.