Proximity, semantic fitness and syntactic expectancy as criteria for the sentence meaning

Words (for the Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā authors) get connected into a complex sentence meaning through proximity (sannidhi), semantic fitness (yogyatā) and syntactic expectancy (ākāṅkṣā).
These three criteria correspond to the requirement of being uttered one after the other with no intervening time (unlike in the case of the words a cow" andruns” pronounced on two different days), being semantically fit to connect (unlike the words watering" andwith fire”) and being linkable through syntactic expectancy (as in the case of a verb and its arguments).
It is in this connection noteworthy that the example of expectancy always refer to syntax rather than semantics and typically have a verb expecting a complement or vice versa.

The Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā authors also adopt the same criteria in order to rule the understanding of the sentence meaning out of the connected words and avoid the objections (mentioned above) about the fact that out of a random heap of words one would not know how to start to get to the sentence meaning.

But what exactly do proximity, fitness and syntactical expectancy refer to? The question arises because they seem to conflate different levels, insofar as fitness is necessarily semantic and therefore appears to refer to word-meanings, expectancy is syntactic and proximity seems to refer only to the proximity of the uttered words. However, in Sucarita’s discussion proximity is also attributed to the mental proximity of words or meanings. This can make it possible for the Prābhākara opponent voiced by Sucarita to get to the complex sentence meaning “The door is to be closed” out of “The door!” only, since the words “is to be closed” are mentally proximate. This is needed also in order to explain how one-word sentences can denote a meaning although, according to Prābhākaras, words denote a meaning only once connected. In fact, explains the Prābhākara opponent embedded in Sucarita’s text, one-word sentences such as pacati ‘[s/he] cooks’ denote a complex sentence-meaning together with other words which are proximate in one’s mind, e.g. ‘rice’ or ‘pulses’.

Conversely, this mental aspect of proximity makes it possible for the Bhāṭṭas to interpret all three criteria as referring to meanings, whereas Prābhākaras would still need to understand at least fitness as referring to meanings, not words. How can Prābhākaras still claim that the three criteria lead one to get to the sentence meaning without the intermediate step of the word-meanings? In other words, if word-meanings do not play any role, how can fitness play a role? A possible way out is Śālikanātha’s suggestion that word-meanings, though not denoted by words, are remembered by them. In this case, one might speak of fitness among the remembered word-meanings as leading one’s understanding of the denoted sentence-meaning.

Alternatively, a contemporary Prābhākara might suggest that some preliminary understanding of word-meaning is immediately denoted by each word, but that each new word adjusts the meaning of the previous one through the above mentioned criteria in a hermeneutic circle. This solution is not explicitly discussed, at least in the texts I am aware of, possibly because it implies a preliminary (and therefore epistemologically unsound) step within linguistic communication and could have therefore jeopardised the role of linguistic communication as an instrument of knowledge.

I discussed the Mīmāṃsā theories of sentence meaning at this post.

(cross-posted on my personal blog, where you can also read some interesting comments)

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.

One thought on “Proximity, semantic fitness and syntactic expectancy as criteria for the sentence meaning

  1. Hi Elisa
    Thanks for this post. I should have something intelligent to say about this but I feel like digesting, which means that I have nothing intelligent to say at the moment. Nice to see some philosophy of language up here!

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