Can one understand a sentence without believing its content to be the case?

Well, yes… isn’t it?
The problem is less easy than it may look like and amounts to the problem of non-committal understanding. Is it the normal attitude while listening to a speaker or just an exception or an a posteriori withdrawal of belief once one notices that the speaker is in any way non reliable?

In Classical Indian philosophy, Naiyāyika authors should uphold the possibility of a non-committal understanding of sentence-meanings, since they are convinced that cognitions need to be proved to be valid in order to be such and that such validation comes from outside (in the case of testimony, typically out of the reliability of the speaker). Mīmāṃsā authors, by contrast, would claim that belief is withdrawn but that the default understanding of a sentence implies the belief that it states something true.

Now, the problem with the non-committal understanding is that it seemse to have been theorised (and called śābdabodha) as such only in Navya Nyāya. Taber (1996) discusses the possibility of such a hypothesis already in the 10th c. Jayanta, but his arguments are critically analysed in Graheli (2015, forthcoming in Kervan).

By chance I read of a similar discussion in the Port Royal Logique in this post, where the problem is also how to account for the distinction between understanding a sentence and believing that its content is the case. The post is highly recommended!

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

7 thoughts on “Can one understand a sentence without believing its content to be the case?

  1. Was glancing at Potter’s Encyclopedia today and just stumbled upon this citation, from a great scholar of Indian philosophy: Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, “Once more: a false sentence can generate verbal cognition according to Nyaya”, Sambhasa 30, 2012, 79-?

  2. It’s taken me too long to respond to this post. Great question Elisa! I remember speaking to you and Matthew about a related issue: the question of the linguistic account of thought. I’m sure it’s the default account in the West, starting with the Greeks. Accordingly, linguistic meaning is thought, which is to say truth assessable. In Indian talk, this would be the idea that linguistic meaning is jnana. If this is your view, then indeed, truth and meaning are closely connected, for the objectivity of what is meant seems to account for its truth. Accordingly, it would be difficult to make sense of a claim without knowing if it is true. The problem then is accounting for false propositions. This was Russell’s problem in the Principles of Mathematics (§34) but not only his. I’m pretty sure this is what drives the pressure felt by Davidson to argue for his version of Charity, and I’m pretty sure it’s also what drives Gadamer to his claim that understanding is always prejudiced. This linguistic account of thought is difficult to find in the Indian tradition, so I’m not sure that Indian philosophers would have felt pressure to make sense of the connection between belief and understanding. Indeed, one might make sense of a Mimamsa view that taking the Vedas seriously does not entail a belief in the Gods it talks of…

    • Shyam, thanks for the interesting comment! As for Mīmāṃsā, however, let me say that the point –for Mīmāṃsaka– is not believing or not believing in the gods mentioned in a Vedic passage, but rather understanding properly the passage at stake. And a proper understanding entails understanding that the devatās mentioned in, e.g., arthavādas are not existing entities who would be able to bestow the sacrifice’s result. The opposite would just be a misunderstanding.

  3. Thanks, Shyam.

    Also relevant is the broader category of āhārya-jñāna, noncommittal awareness, that may include daydreaming and the like.

    You’d know better than me, the Yogasutra’s notion of vikalpa seems to be in the ballpark, too: śabdajñānānupātī vastuśūnyo vikalpaḥ

  4. You are right that it seems to come up late. IIRC, it is discuseed in Ganeri’s study of Gahadhara, a later Navyanaiyayika. I don’t remember it used much in the earlier thinkers.

    Incidentally, just noticed this reference: “Śābdabodha and the problem of knowledge-representation in Sanskrit” Bimal Krishna Matilal in Journal of Indian Philosophy (1988)

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