What Indian philosophers mean by 'meaning'

Semantic Powers
March 17, 2000

Semantic Powers conceives of language as essentially a means for the reception of knowledge through testimony. Jonardon Ganeri argues his position by relying heavily on the 17th-century Indian philosopher Gadadhara of the Navya-Nyaya or "new" Nyaya school, famous for its contributions to logical theory, particularly to the areas of inference, quantification, propositional laws and negation. The title is from the Nyaya notion of shakti, the significatory power of words, contained in the title of Gadadhara's work Shaktivada or Theory of Semantic Power .

In Ganeri's own words, his book is an analysis of the philosophical value of Gadadhara's and others' ideas about meaning. He begins by discussing understanding as an instrument of knowledge, the language faculty, mandated meaning, and normativity. He moves on to pramana theory, the Nyaya conception of the means of knowledge, in the light of semantic roles, knowledge and testimony. This is followed by discussions of meaning relata in the light of various Indian theories of meaning, of the meaning relation, and meaning and modes of thought. The final two chapters deal with stipulation and indexicality.

Throughout the book Ganeri engages in a dialogue with modern analytical philosophy, the aim being to show how classical Indian philosophy of language can inform and be informed by its contemporary counterpart. This is admirable in a still overwhelmingly eurocentric climate, but there is also an impending danger of reading too much analytical philosophy into classical Indian texts. On the whole (apart from an obsession with formalising into symbolic language almost any argument put forward by philosophers who were not that way inclined), Ganeri manages to keep his balance. There are some slips, as when he claims that the Navya- Nyaya authors in their discussion of action statements and the analysis of the notion of agency "anticipate some recent work in action theory" or refers to "Bhartrhari's 'Quinean' semantic holism". Along such lines it would not only be possible to claim that the fifth-century philosopher-grammarian Bhartrhari argued some 1,500 years before Quine that the sentence is the primary unit of language, but also that he distinguished between meaning and reference a long time before Frege did, anticipated Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica in noting that a number is a class of classes, and came close to realising the possibility of propositional calculus. Clearly this would be ludicrous in as much as ideas arise and develop within a cultural context.

Ganeri does occasionally betray a certain insensitivity to the issue of context. For example, in the discussion of meanings as properties he quotes and discusses a statement from the Mahabhashya of Patanjali (c. 150 BCE) where the latter (rhetorically) asks whether the meaning of a word is a class/general feature or a particular object. When Patanjali answers "both", it is with reference to two rules in Panini's grammar. His sole intention was to point out that if you look to the grammar of the master, it contains rules which indicate the possibility of both answers. Ganeri remarks: "Now Patanjali's claim that the descriptions used generically refer to the genus seems to be correct at best for sentences where the predicate is collective, for such sentences do seem to be singular predications of the genus. The problem is that it is only for sentences with distributive predicates that the pluralisation rule is valid!" This is beside the point, and when Ganeri goes on to say "What ought Patanjali to have said?", it is tempting to suggest that Ganeri ought to have written a different book.

All things considered, though, Ganeri has succeeded remarkably well in "translating" Navya-Nyaya thought into contemporary idiom and debate in areas where it presents a real contribution to modern concerns in linguistics and philosophy of language. This is particularly the case with the discussions of stipulation and indexicality where he considers the distinctive semantic properties of a variety of referential constructions, including anaphoric pronouns, indexicals embedded within speech reports, and stipulatively introduced theoretical names.

Perhaps Ganeri's most important achievement is the central role he assigns to epistemology in the study of language. Semantic Powers is a penetrating and impressive analysis of a difficult area of classical Indian philosophy presented in a contemporary light. It should provide stimulating reading for philosophers, linguists and Indologists alike.

Eivind Kahrs is lecturer in Sanskrit, University of Cambridge.

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

Author - Jonardon Ganeri
ISBN - 0 19 823788 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 266

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