Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The power of words

Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

Artha: Meaning
by Jonardon Ganeri.
Foundations of Philosophy in India Series.
Oxford University Press. Pages 258. Rs 575.

Western philosophers preoccupied themselves with language, especially in the last century. Some went to extremes saying that since most other branches of empirical inquiry had been successfully taken up by natural sciences, the only thing left for philosophers to do was to analyse language, and to clarify concepts. Philosophy of language is a branch of philosophy that studies language, but not in the way linguists do—they are not interested in the meaning of words, their etymology, or syntax. Dictionaries and grammar books would sever such a purpose better.

Philosophers of language are more interested in questions like: What is the nature of meaning? What do we do with language? How is it used socially? How does language relate to the mind and the world? Few in the West, and in India are aware of the rich tradition of philosophy of language that began about 2500 years ago.

Jonardon Ganeri's Artha explores Indian philosophy of language covering Mimamsa, Nayaya and Navya Nayaya, Vaisesika and Buddhist schools of thought. Ganeri, Reader in philosophy at the University of Liverpool, examines the relationship between semantic power and epistemic power of words as seen by various thinkers and schools.

According to the realist theory of meaning, Ganeri points out, a word has the power to stand in for, or take the place of, a thing. It is to this special aspect that sakti, the Sanskrit term for 'meaning' refers. Words mean knowledge, and knowledge is power. This was a fact well recognised by the ancients, that it is not surprising knowledge was limited to a chosen few. We are introduced to early philosophers like Vyadi (circa 400 BC) whose work we know through Patanjali. Ganeri shows that his views were reminiscent of James Stuart Mill's suggestion that names are like labels for an object. Ideas of Bertrand Russell, Peter Strawson, Hillary Putnam and others are juxtaposed along with the Indian system, so that the modern reader gets a better grasp of the argument. Some of the concepts discussed are Panini's grammatical theory in which he draws a distinction between the ostensive grammatical form and what is called karaka, the deeper structure. Among other issues discussed are sabdabodha, the essence of language, sabda-pramana, through which propositions are established or proved, and paribhasiki. That is how theoretical terms come into circulation.

As a part of the series, Foundations of Philosophy in India, this is an important contribution to the literature on the philosophy of language. The book is for those who have background in the Indian and Western philosophy of language and logic, but a serious reader could certainly profit from portions that are not too technical.

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