Friday, September 15, 2017

The Indic (or Indian) Contribution to Grammar, Linguistics, and the Philosophy of Language

Linguistics, insofar as it is (or aspires to be) a science, touches (directly, or indirectly by way of presuppositions, assumptions, and presumptions) on more than a few questions that fall within the province of the philosophy of language (the ‘philosophy of linguistics’ is germane as well, being the ‘philosophy of science as applied to linguistics’). And the Indic tradition is a rich repository of sophisticated reflections on grammar, linguistics, and philosophy of language proper, particularly (and thus not exclusively) the “Grammarians” and the Mīmāṃsā darśana. Hence the reason for bringing this article, Talking Gibberish by Gaston Dorren to your attention, as its shortcomings provide yet another piece of evidence for the imperative value of comparative philosophy.

I thought this essay in Aeon by Dorren overwrought, and in some respects awful, as when it refers to the “pre-scientific era” of linguistics as having “produced a lot of codswallop and hogwash,” while neglecting to mention the brilliance of Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī  (‘The Eight-Chaptered’) (150 BCE?), properly characterized by Harold G. Coward and K. Kunjunni Raja as a “very remarkable work,” “providing a model for recent and contemporary work in descriptive linguistics that can stand with the best efforts of modern analysts.” As the Wikipedia entry on Pāṇini informs us,

“Pāṇini’s work became known in 19th-century Europe, where it influenced modern linguistics initially through Franz Bopp, who mainly looked at Pāṇini. Subsequently, a wider body of work influenced Sanskrit scholars such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, and Roman Jakobson. Frits Staal (1930–2012) discussed the impact of Indian ideas on language in Europe. After outlining the various aspects of the contact, Staal notes that the idea of formal rules in language – proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure in 1894 and developed by Noam Chomsky in 1957 – has origins in the European exposure to the formal rules of Pāṇinian grammar.  In particular, de Saussure, who lectured on Sanskrit for three decades, may have been influenced by Pāṇini and Bhartṛhari; his idea of the unity of signifier-signified in the sign somewhat resembles the notion of sphoṭa. More importantly, the very idea that formal rules can be applied to areas outside of logic or mathematics may itself have been catalysed by Europe’s contact with the work of Sanskrit grammarians.”

According to at least some experts on our subject matter, the Sanskrit grammarians and Indic philosophical schools have nothing to contribute to either the philosophy of linguistics” or the “philosophy of language” (see too Bob Hale and Crispin Wright, eds. A Companion to the Philosophy of Language [Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997]).

Well, before I could finish my response to the article, one Bjorn Merker beat me to it, taking Dorren to task in the comments for failing to mention this “giant linguist,” as well as noting that “Pāṇini’s grammar … availed itself of a technical metalanguage consisting of a syntax, morphology and lexicon, organised according to a series of meta-rules. This technique, rediscovered by the logician Emil Post in 1936, became a standard method in the design of computer programming languages ….” 

Recommended Reading (not an exhaustive list):

  • Bilimoria, Purushottama. Śabdapramāna: Word and Knowledge. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1988.
  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. Tradition and Argument in Classical Indian Linguistics. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1986.
  • Cabezón, José Ignacio. Buddhism and Language: A Study of Indo-Tibetan Scholasticism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994.
  • Chari, V.K. Sanskrit Criticism. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
  • Coward, Harold G. The Sphota Theory of Language. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980.
  • Coward, Harold G. and K. Kunjunni Raja, eds. The Philosophy of the Grammarians (Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. 5). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • Freschi, Elisa. Duty, Language and Exegesis in Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā: Including an Edition and Translation of Rāmānujācārya’s Tantrarahasya, Śāstraprameyapariccheda. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
  • Ganeri, Jonardon. Semantic Powers: Meaning and the Means of Knowing in Classical Indian Philosophy. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1999.
  • Ganeri, Jonardon. Artha: Meaning. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Herzberger, Radhika. Bhartrihari and the Buddhists. Dordrecht: D. Reidel/Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1986.
  • Iyer, Soubramania, K.A. Bhartrihari: A Study of Vākyapadīya in the Light of Ancient Commentaries. Poona: Deccan College Postgraduate Research Institute, 1997.
  • Kahrs, Eivind. Indian Semantic Analysis: The ‘Nirvicana’ Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna (Jonardon Ganeri, ed.). Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005 (Mouton, 1971).
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna. Logic, Language and Reality: an introduction to Indian philosophical studies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1985.
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna. The Word and the World: India’s Contribution to the Study of Language. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna (Jonardon Ganeri, ed.). The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal: Mind, Language and World. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna and Arindam Chakrabarti, eds. Knowing from Words: Western and Indian Philosophical Analysis of Understanding and Testimony. Dordrecht: Springer, 1994.
  • Siderits, Mark. Indian Philosophy of Language. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991.
  • Staal, Frits. Universals: Studies in Indian Logic and Linguistics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.


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