Keywords: jnā– and vid

In the last week, two students have asked me about the distinction between jñā- and vid- and this made me think that it might be worth adding a new section to Andrew’s collaborative enterprise (see here and here) of mapping the technical vocabulary of Sanskrit. Since jñā- (and its derivatives, such as jñāna) and vid- (and vidyā, etc.) have different acceptations in various areas of Sanskrit, let me state, once again, that I will only focus on śāstric, philosophical Sanskrit.
To begin with, let me state that jñā- is the most common and most generic way to refer to the semantic field of knowing. It is thus, like artha in another field, a valuable place-holder for almost any other verb, since all cognising activities, from the sense-perceptual grasping to the illusory conceptualising, can be referred to as instances of jñā-. However, more in detail:

  • vid- is etymologically linked with the act of seeing (as in Ancient Greek οἶδα, literally ‘I have seen’, but used in the sense of ‘I know’). It thus indicates what one has experienced and thus knows for sure. Moreover, vid- indicates a lasting knowledge, one which is valid and which one will be able to keep in one’s memory for at least a long time. Accordingly, the vidyās are branches of learning, like the German Wissenschaften. Long story short, use verbs such as ‘to know’ to translate it.
  • jñā-, by contrast, indicates an act of cognition (as shown by B.K. Matilal). It is thus not necessarily valid and it is instantaneous. One performs an act of jñā- when one erroneously grasps water in the desert, or when one dreams. And the single jñānas are just single ‘cognitions’ which one does not keep forever. vijñāna may add to that a nuance of ‘discriminative, dialectic cognition’, which makes it necessarily valid, but the distinction between jñāna and vijñāna is a moot issue, as proved by the commentaries on the one or the other. Long story short, use verbs such as ‘to cognize’ to translate jñā-.
  • In non-Śāstric contexts, jñāna can acquire different meanings and its non discriminative nature can be seen as an advantage, so that it can even ultimately amount to ‘insight’ or ‘wisdom’.

    What are your translations for jñā– and vid-?

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5 thoughts on “Keywords: jnā– and vid

  1. This is very helpful! Thanks!

    Concerning what you said about jñā- not being necessarily valid, I would note that in contemporary philosophy “valid” usually refers to a logical property of arguments rather than a property of cognitions. An argument can be valid or invalid depending on the connection between the premises and conclusion, but it means something very different to apply “valid” to a cognition. I tend to use “true” and “false” when discussing cognitions to avoid this confusion, although this maybe has its own problems (e.g., does “arthakriyā” mean “truth” for Dharmakīrti?).

    I would explain jñā- to a contemporary philosophical audience by pointing out, as Matilal and others do, that it must mean “cognition” rather than “knowledge” because you can have a false cognition (mithyā jñāna), but it makes no sense to have false knowledge, since knowledge implies truth.

    Also, jñā- is an occurrent state, whereas states like knowledge or belief can be dispositional. On that note, I suppose vid- can be dispositional. The vidyās might also be described as bodies of knowledge, which wouldn’t have to be mental episodes at all, since such knowledge might exist on palm leaves or in computers (if that can be called knowledge…).

  2. They are close. Vid- comes from the PIE root, to see. And jna- from the PIE root, to know.

    The English words from these same roots are Wisdom and Knowledge.

  3. There is yet another set of knowledge-related words in Sanskrit which is extremely relevant for philosophy – words like prama, pramana etc. Its root meaning is ‘to measure’ and ‘to know’. How do we distinguish the range of its application in contrast to the two words you have discussed?

    This seems to apply to those situations where assessment of knowledge is involved, in dealing with questions like ‘what is true knowledge’. We use these words where we want to take a measure of knowledge. So we have three sets of words to deal with occurrence of knowledge, body of knowledge and measure of knowledge.

    I have a query with reference to your post and Mills’ comment. Are we saying that only ‘true knowledge’ is knowledge and ‘false knowledge’ is not knowledge? In other words, only cognitions can be false and knowledge can not be false? Do we say that all knowledge is true knowledge?

    • “Knowledge” is usually understood to imply truth. For instance, knowledge has been analyzed by Western philosophers as “justified true belief” or “reliably caused true belief” or many other ways. You can have beliefs that are false, but not false knowledge, since knowledge contains the idea that it is true. I would say that pramā is a special subset of jñāna that is the result of a pramāṇa, and being a result of a pramāṇa implies truth, or at least not being contradicted, being effective, or other ideas (how the concept of truth fits into all this is a complicated issue!).

      You can speak loosely of “false knowledge,” but what you really mean is something like, “they thought they knew that, but they were mistaken.” So the sentence, “People used to ‘know’ the Earth was flat,” actually means something like, “People used to believe that they knew the Earth was flat, but they were wrong.”

      • First of all, many thanks for the interesting comments. I apologise for the delay in answering them —I just came back from Bangkok.

        @Avinash, thanks for your comment. pramā- as a technical term in śāstric epistemology indicates only valid cognitions, i.e., knowledge. If you want to speak of acts of cognition independently of their truth conditions, you will rather use jñā-. Last, you are right, a jñāna, like a ‘cognition’, can be true or false (or valid and invalid, according to the theory of truth you subscribe to, see my answer to Ethan below), whereas ‘knowledge’ is necessarily valid.

        @Ashu, thanks for the additions.

        @Ethan, thanks for the explanation. I would like to prefer using the term ‘truth’ in classical Indian epistemology, since I suspect that truth was not always what was hinted at. As you point out, arthakriyā is just a test for efficacy, not for truth (ultimately, nothing is true, according to the Buddhist Pramāṇavāda). The same applies to Advaita Vedānta and In the case of Mīmāṃsā ontological concerns are not the core issue. Thus, I see your point, but what can we use in regard to cognition which corresponds to ‘valid’ and ‘invalid’?

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