Some thoughts on the terms śabda and “testimony”

In the context of epistemology and pramāṇa theory, we often translate śabda as “testimony.” It is reasonable to do so, since using “word” in sentences like “Word is a genuine source of knowledge” is unpleasant to the ear and confusing to modern readers. That said, it strikes me that the Indian thinkers use of śabda makes good sense. Primarily, this is because “testimony” seems to imply situations where one person is self-consciously teaching another person; yet these are really a subset of the more general way that we gain cognition from the denotative power of language. Much of our day is spent in conversation where we give and take knowledge, typically unselfconsciously, and largely without either side approaching the situation in the way we would approach being taught by an expert. When we do learn from experts, this is just a special case of learning from language. I’d opine that this is why some medieval Sanskrit teaching texts discuss philosophy of language as nested within discussion of śabda as a pramāṇa, something that may strike modern thinkers as mixing together two separate domains of philosophical inquiry. What is central is the denotative power of language and how it can generate true cognition. It is what underwrites all instances of learning “from testimony.”

Secondly we can learn from words without them being an expression of another’s true beliefs in the way that “testimony” seems to presuppose. Admittedly this point is argued and debated both classically and in modern philosophy; but to use an example I find compelling: I can look up the distance between two places in Google maps, and for the sake of argument let’s say no one has ever asked or thought about the exact distance between the two places before. The program then algorithmically generates words from which I learn something true; words which in no way express a belief that was previously held by anyone. Here, I learn from words, but not exactly from an assertion or from testimony unless we want to significantly adjust what we mean by the latter two terms. The reason I learn from Google maps in this case is because the words that are being generated do in fact denote certain places and accurately express the distance between them. That’s it.

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

12 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the terms śabda and “testimony”

  1. I found myself opining about the opening part of the Nyaya Sutra and it strikes me that teaches that: drawing inferences (anumāna) is not the same as taking people’s word as true (śabda), or observing how things are (pratyakṣa). I’m trying to figure out if putting it this way gels with your observations or not. I think it does, but it keeps something of the idea of testimony at play. Please correct me!

  2. Hi Shyam, thanks for your thoughts. I cut my finger making salad today, so I must be brief (as typing hurts!). Indeed, my thinking on this was (re-)stimulated by reading NyS 2.1.52-6, which goes into more depth about the question of testimony as distinct from inference. Among other things, the nature of the word-object relation is discussed, since one argument is that the relation between inferential relata is very different from word-object as the latter is entirely conventional.

  3. Thanks, Matthew. I usually explain that “testimony” is not a good translation because it works only within Nyāya (and other schools influenced by it). By contrast, since it presupposes a witness testifying something, it does not work for Mīmāṃsā and for the other schools which follow it in claiming that the Vedas are apauruṣeya ‘not dependent on an author’.

    As for google maps, we discussed the topic in the past (and I happen to have written a short post about written śabda yesterday), but let me add (while you cannot reply:-)) that I would interpret the case of machines telling us something as a case of inference. I know that whenever I type X in the software Z I get the result Y, which is valid —the fact that the result is read by me or pronounced aloud by the machine is not relevant.

      • I only use it when I refer to Nyāya. If I need to speak about Indian philosophy as a whole, I use “Linguistic communication as a means of knowledge” the first time and then “linguistic communication” each time after it. This also helps making the connection with linguistics clear, I hope. Do you leave śabda untranslated?

        • hi Elisa,
          a couple of perhaps naive questions: I’m interested in why you don’t think ‘linguistic communication’ suffers the same vulnerability you attach to ‘testimony’ (i.e. presupposing some kind of intention) and why it is preferable to ‘language’? Thanks in advance…

          • thanks for asking, Robert.
            “Language” is possibly the best option, since it reflects the Sanskrit (and evokes possibly parallel concepts such as Heidegger’s and Plotinus’ logos). However, it may be ambiguous, since it also denotes specific idioms (bhāṣā-s) and may be read in a non-epistemic sense, as hinting at grammatical or syntactical issues only. That’s why I generally use “linguistic communication”. I see your implicit point about the fact that one might imagine a speaker also in this case, but the presence of the speaker is unavoidable in the case of testimony (testimonia ‘testimony’ is what is done by the testis ‘witness’), whereas in the case of “linguistic communication” the act itself should be in the foreground. Consequently, epistemological discussions about testimony in European and English-speaking philosophy (see A. Coady’s Testimony) focus on topics like the requisites of the speaker. I hope that “linguistic communication” makes one aware that the latter is just one of the possible ways of looking at the phenomenon of language as an instrument of knowledge.

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