Semantic Powers: Meaning and the Means of Knowing in Classical Indian Philosophy

Semantic Powers: Meaning and the Means of Knowing in Classical Indian Philosophy

Semantic Powers: Meaning and the Means of Knowing in Classical Indian Philosophy

Semantic Powers: Meaning and the Means of Knowing in Classical Indian Philosophy

Synopsis

Jonardon Ganeri defends a conception of language as essentially a means for the reception of knowledge through testimony. He argues that the possibility of testimony constrains the form of a theory of meaning. In particular, the semantic power of a word, its ability to stand for or take the place of a thing, derives from the epistemic powers of understanders, their capacity to acquire knowledge simply by understanding what is said. Ganeri finds this account in the work of certain Indian philosophers of language, those belonging to the late classical school of Navya-Ny(ya. He presents a detailed analysis of their theories, paying particular attention to the influential seventeenth-century philosopher Gad(dhara. Ganeri examines the Indian account of the meaning relation and its relata, the role of modes of thought as meaning constituents, and the application of the theory to theoretical names and anaphora. The aim of Semantic Powers is to give epistemology a central place in the study of language. It also shows how classical Indian theory of language can inform and be informed by contemporary philosophy.

Excerpt

The limit to the capacity of speech is as a means of knowing. If this limit is overstepped, there will be only disorder. Udayana

Words have powers, as do the people who understand them. A word has the power to stand in for, or take the place of, a thing. Vibrations in the air, or ink marks on paper, manage somehow to act as substitutes for people and places, planets and atoms, thoughts and feelings. It is to this extraordinary function that the Sanskrit term for 'meaning' calls attention: Śakti--the power or capacity of a word to stand for an object. People who understand words have powers as well; most remarkably, the capacity to acquire knowledge about people, places, planets, and so on, just by hearing noises or seeing marks. This too is a power, just as surely as is the power to see or remember or reason. It is the power to receive knowledge from the testimony of others. It is not all that surprising that these two powers, the semantic and the epistemic, should be connected, but it was the singular achievement of the Indian philosophers of language to analyse the nature of that connection in far greater depth than anyone had done before.

My book is an attempt to explicate and, in so far as I can, defend their analysis. Some years ago, I attended a series of lectures on Indian philosophy of language given by Bimal K. Matilal. Effortlessly moving between two very different philosophical idioms, Matilal revealed to an audience of mostly analytical philosophers the richness and sophistication of what, stressing the global nature of philosophical enquiry, he referred to as India's 'contribution to the study of language'. Shortly afterwards he agreed to read with me a work by the seventeenth-century Nyāya philosopher Gadādhara, entitled Śaktivāda ('Essay on Semantic Power'). For the next two and a half years we worked through the first half of this text, and he continued to teach me even during the long illness that eventually led to his death in 1991. The existence of this book owes a great deal to his encouragement, and its content, of course, to his writings. Another great Nyāya scholar, Sibajiban Bhattacharyya . . .

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