Hindu philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

4. Philosophy of language

From the earliest times, there was a preoccupation with language in Indian culture. ‘Language’ here means Sanskrit. A concern with the power and limitations of language is already clear in the Ṛg Veda. Of the six theoretical branches of learning listed in the Vedas, four are closely related to language: grammar, etymology, lexicography and poetry. The level of accomplishment eventually attained in these is demonstrated in Pāṇini’s descriptive grammar, the Aṣṭādhyāyī. Patañjali’s commentary on this, the Mahābhāṣya (second century bc) can be thought of as a kind of a bridge between grammatical and philosophical concerns (see Patañjali).

The fifth-century philosopher Bhartṛhari stands out among those who studied language. In his Vākyapadīya, he considers the faculty of speech to be an instinct or intuition. He compares it to animal instinct and does not believe that language is learned. Language, according to Bhartṛhari, accompanies cognition – there is no cognition without language. His understanding of language is rather metaphysical, as he equates language with Brahman.

Bhartṛhari is particularly associated with the theory of sphoṭa, although the notion had been formulated some centuries before him. According to this theory, a sentence is an integral unit. Analysing a sentence in terms of phonemes, morphemes or words is useful for learning purposes, but the whole sentence alone is meaningful. When those who know a language hear an utterance in that language, they hear a sentence, not single words or phonemes; only those who do not know the language will hear individual bits of sound. As for the relation between word and meaning, Bhartṛhari holds that it is permanent and natural, not based on convention.

Althought all schools of philosophy were concerned with language, perhaps the earliest was Mīmāṃsā. The followers of this school were concerned with the interpretation of the Vedas, and in particular with the problem of the relation between words and sentences. The Mīmāṃsakas argued that, for a word to be intelligible, each utterance of it has to be identical with an earlier utterance that is now remembered. By extrapolation, words must be eternal. In the same way, the meaning of words is eternal, as is the relation between word and meaning.

Pāṇini had seen the need for a capacity for mutual connection between the meanings of words, and the Mīmāṃsakas similarly developed a set of conditions for meaningful and correct sentences. They named the capacity for mutual connection between the meanings of words ‘mutual expectancy’. For example, ‘he rides an elephant’ fulfils the condition of mutual syntactic expectancy, but a string of words such as ‘elephant, house, riding’ does not. But according to this condition, the sentence ‘he rides a house’ is also a sentence. So another condition, ‘semantic compatibility’, was added. In a sentence like ‘he rides a house’, the semantic compatibility is absent. The Mīmāṃsakas also required that the condition of ‘contiguity’ be fulfilled: words must not be spoken at long intervals or be separated by other words. Another condition was ‘the intention of the speaker’, about which there were varying opinions.

Each of the main branches of the Mīmāṃsā school developed its own theory regarding the semantic relationship between words and sentences. The adherents of Prābhākara believed that the meaning of a sentence arises directly from its collection of words. Conversely, words convey meaning only in the context of a sentence. Each word in a sentence conveys both its isolated meaning and the syntactic meaning. On the other hand, Kumarila Bhāṭṭa and his followers believed that the meaning of a sentence arises indirectly. Each word gives its individual meaning, and this uses up its significative power; therefore the syntactic relation must be obtained by means of a secondary significative power. This view was also shared by the Advaita Vedāntins, who, in order to be able to express truths about the Absolute, could not always use words with their primary meaning, but had instead to use the secondary meaning.

Of course, the Advaitins were not the only ones who distinguished between the primary and secondary meanings of words. This practice was well known among other philosophers, grammarians, and especially literary critics. In his Mahābhāṣya, Patañjali distinguished primary and secondary meanings, while Bhartṛhari discussed transfer of meaning (upacāra) through such tropes as simile, metonymy, synecdoche and so on. By the ninth century, Ānandavardhana, in his exposition of literary criticism, was discussing the ‘suggestive power’ of words. He observed that a text does not yield its full meaning to every reader, since the ideal reader must be trained in the symbolism and conventions of a text, and familiar with the realities to which the text refers. Such a reader has an intuitive grasp of the text that untrained readers lack.

The school of Nyāya was at first primarily concerned with theories of the relation between a word and its meaning. The Naiyāyikas did not consider this relation to be natural, but saw it as just a matter of convention. This conventional relation is called ‘significative power’ (śakti). Śakti applies to primary meaning only; although secondary meaning is accepted, it is considered only in terms of its relation to the primary meaning and can apply only to single words, not to whole sentences.

The Naiyāyikas and the grammarians stayed active for many centuries, in the course of which their teachings were transformed. The Naiyāyikas especially developed new terminology and techniques of argument; this change was reflected in their adoption of a modified name, Navya-Nyāya (New Logic) (see Gadādhāra; Gaṅgeśa; Language, Indian theories of).

Citing this article:
Clear, Edeltraud Harzer. Philosophy of language. Hindu philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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