A contemporary Prābhākara contextualism

In her recent post on theories of sentence meaning in Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā, Elisa talked about a possible “contemporary Prābhākara” viewpoint about sentence meaning:

…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.

She suggests this approach because Prābhākara thinkers appeal to three factors which generate sentence meaning: proximity (sannidhi), semantic fitness (yogyatā), and expectancy (ākāṅkṣā). But there seems to be something puzzling about their appeal to these factors, since on the anvitābhidhāna view we hear words and from that understand meanings as connected (anvita). (This, of course, is in contrast to the abhihitānvaya view, in which each word first denotes its natural or primary meaning in isolation.) It’s puzzling because semantic fitness doesn’t apply to words, but to their meanings. For instance, there is semantic fitness between the meanings of “sprinkle” and “water” in the sentence, “She sprinkles the garden with water,” but not between the meanings of “sprinkle” and “fire” in “She sprinkles the garden with fire.” However, on the anvitābhidhāna view, it seems like we must evaluate semantic fitness directly with regard to words themselves.

Elisa suggests that Śālikanātha’s solution involves some intermediary stage between words and meanings—that of remembering word meanings before the words give their denotation. In comments at her blog, Elisa wonders if the distinction between these two things (remembering and denoting, or smār- and abhidhā-) may not be a lexical technicality. In some comments on that post at her blog, I remarked that this seems analogous in some ways to François Recanati’s approach. And in this approach, there is more than a lexical technicality involved. I thought I’d expand that idea a little bit here, rather than relegate the remarks to a comment thread. The basic idea is that what is remembered is not the kind of thing which can contribute meaning to a sentence, although it is a form of linguistic meaning. In Recanati’s terms, it is the “wrong format.”

Recanati’s most recent book focusing on his theory of meaning (with the same name) is Truth Conditional Pragmatics (TCP). However, his own view is not merely TCP but “radical contextualism” or “the wrong format view” (on which more below), which he presents in Literal Meaning and other articles. (He thinks the latter view entails the former, but not the other way around.) In what follows, I focus on Recanati’s wrong format radical contextualism, although what he has to say about TCP is also interesting. Let’s take an example sentence:

(1) My horse is in the backyard.

Suppose this is uttered by a child at her home in the country. Here are two plausible ways of making explicit what the child is getting at:

(1a) My toy horse is in the backyard.
(1b) My real horse is in the backyard.

On either disambiguation, the utterance could be used for different purposes.

(2a) On being asked if she wants to bring anything with her in the car: “My (toy) horse is in the backyard (so let’s go get it).”
(2b) On being asked what she wants to do this afternoon: “My (real) horse is in the backyard (so let’s go ride it).”

The parenthetical elements are the contents which are apparently not derived compositionally from the sentence. For this example, let’s assume that we know she has a plastic toy horse that she keeps in the backyard, so she is intending (1a) and (2a).

On the radical contextualist view, we must understand the contextual sense of “horse” before we have understood the entire sentence and evaluated it for its truthfulness. For Recanati, what the child has said is a matter of the speech act in context. On just about all views, the meaning of word “my” will necessarily involve some contextual input, as it is an indexical. It has some covert variable which requires contextual input about the utterance’s speaker. However, for Recanati, “horse” also needs contextual input. This is to evaluate whether (1) is true, we need to understand whether it is a toy horse or real horse or etc. that she is talking about. We can distinguish between three kinds of “word meanings” here:

  1. The lexical meaning. This is whatever we can, through an inferential theorizing process, abstract as being in common with all uses (senses 1& 2 below) of “horse.” It is a schema or a network of many senses.
  2. The conventional/protoypical sense. This is the contextual sense which is default for our uses of a word. For “horse,” it might be a real biological horse.
  3. The modulated sense. This is the contextual sense which is loosened or narrowed through processes which are semantically speaking “optional” (on Gricean views), like free enrichment or modulation. (So, contrast “my” which requires a speaker to understand its sense.)

What’s crucial is that for Recanati, in a sentence “horse” never means its lexical meaning, as he argues that this is the wrong format for a contributor to sentence meaning, as it is a schematic network of different senses, recalled to our memory. Rather, we need some contextually suitable sense of “horse.” What we must do is interpret the utterance in the specific context at hand, sometimes backtracking in our comprehension before we have completely understood the entire sentence. Our idea of lexical meaning is something that we abstract from senses–which are the ways we use “horse” in context. (That the child wants to go get her toy horse is for Recanati, since it is not part of the intuitive truth-conditions of (1), a further implicature.)

You might think that Recanati is an eliminativist about word meanings—and he does in fact talk about meaning eliminativism as one form of contextualism in Literal Meaning. Since on his view above, “horse” does not contribute anything context-invariant to each sentence, it seems the word has no meaning. But he would reply, I take it, that the wrong format view does not deny that words contribute something stable, a kind of meaning, across different contexts. It merely claims that what they contribute does not, without further contextual adjustment, contribute to the content of the sentence.

As for memory, it plays an important role for Recanati, as it does for Śālikanātha. Take his account (Recanati 2017) of the polysemous term “swallow” which now gets conventionally applied to ATMs (they “swallow” your debit card). At one time, “swallow” was used in a creative way for a debit card at an ATM, drawing on some prototypical relationship between the way ordinary swallowing works and the debit card disappearing into the cash machine. So the lexical meaning of “swallow” was the input for further modulation in a sentence like:

(3) The ATM swallowed my card.

Over time, that sense of “swallow” has become conventionalized. For Recanati, that means that when I utter (3) your memory of the way this word is used may include cases of ATMs. Thus the lexical meaning now includes, as part of its “network of senses” the biological sense along with the ATM sense. Still, this lexical meaning is not the right kind of thing to contribute to sentence meaning. If we do not modulate it (by loosening or narrowing), we draw on the prototypical sense, which here is the biological sense. In this way, there is (a) lexical meaning, which never contributes to sentence meaning, (b) prototypical meaning, which may contribute to sentence meaning as a default, and (c) modulated meaning, which is an extension of the prototypical meaning.

Enough of Recanati. My suggestion is just that in considering what a “contemporary Prābhākara” might say about sentence meaning, we want to also consider what sort of thing Śālikanātha is committing to as the content of our memory, in that first step before we understand the contextually appropriate sense of the word. Is the smāraṇa for “horse” something like lexical meaning, an abstracted network of senses from all of our previous uses of the word? A prototypical meaning, a default, if not “primary” but immediately accessible and/or often used sense of the word? Or something else?

François Recanati (2017). “Contextualism and Polysemy,” dialectica 71(3): 379–397.


About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

15 thoughts on “A contemporary Prābhākara contextualism

  1. Hi Malcolm

    Thanks for the engaging follow up on Elisa’s post. I just wanted to say something about semantic fitness. I agree that certainly we don’t usually talk about the semantic fitness of a word. But if we bring compositionality into the picture, then surely there can be a semantic fitness between a word and its meaning — one that is better explained by a truth conditional semantics and not a truth conditional pragmatics?

    I’m not entirely sure that Recanati’s account works here because he does want to say that it is the context that fixes the content—right ? (his view strikes me almost exactly like Davidson’s though he doesn’t seem to explicitly say so). But this undermines the normative idea of fitness. A great example of how such a truth conditional pragmatic undermines fitness is in Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.”

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Shyam,
      what do you mean by “fitness between a word and its meaning”? (Since I basically work on *Indian* philosophy of language, I tend to think of fitness as holding among various word-meanings in a sentence, so I might be overseeing something evident.)

      • Hi Malcolm

        Any case where the literal meaning of an expression/word and the meaning it contributes to a sentence diverges is a case where we can distinguish between the word and its (sentence-relative) meaning. And in these cases we can evaluate whether the word is fit given the meaning it contributes to a sentence. “My mouse has a usb connection” — here “mouse” contributes to the sentence the meaning of a computer mouse, but mouse the term is literally a rodent. We can hence debate the fitness of the term “mouse” for this semantic role to name the device that controls the cursor.

        • Dear Shyam, Elisa probably also has thoughts, but:
          1. The issue is what precisely we mean by “literal meaning” so I’m not sure that you can help yourself to that concept so easily here. When you say “mouse” the term literally means rodent, that is in fact the question–really, two questions: what does “literal” mean here, and is it true that “mouse” literally means rodent?
          2. More to the point, what you describe is not yogyatā or semantic fitness in the Indian tradition. Perhaps it might fall under aucitya, or “appropriateness” or “propriety” of a term. But yogyatā is about artha (the meaning of a word), and not śabda (the utterance of the word).

          • Hi Malcolm
            I’m sure Elisa has thoughts! (I apologize again for mistakenly addressing my response to her comment to you — as mentioned below I was quickly responding to the email, which had your name and not hers proximate to the comment).

            Thanks for responding.

            (1) Literal meaning I take it is the systematic or basic role of an expression in a language (Frege, Russel, Mill, Davidson, Salmon). So If we know the literal meaning of “mouse” as a rodent, we can understand radial meanings that are derivative uses but lexical definitions in their own right—meanings like a computer mouse. Of course some might want to explain the latter phenomenon purely in terms of pragmatic terms, but in so far as our understanding of such derivative uses transcends contexts of use, it seems that they are secondary, nonliteral meanings (Lackoff). And in this case, we could identify the word with the literal meaning, and ask questions about its fitness relative to secondary meanings.

            (2) I’m less confident about the second point—you want to identify shabda with a speech act of utterance, but it seems to me to be a lexical (semantic) matter.

          • Shyam, the blog won’t let me comment below yours, but quickly, by the term śabda I mean the word as uttered (roughly=pada). That is how it is used: a padārtha is the meaning which comes from a word, and a śābdabodha is a cognition which comes from speech. These are two different levels for Mīmāṃsakas, which we can see very clearly in a few contexts, such as the discussion over whether in (śruta) arthāpatti which is understood is a śabda or an artha.

      • Sorry Elisa
        I responded to the email version of your post, which had Malcom’s name prominently displayed followed by your question. I addressed it to Malcolm when I should have addressed to you.

    • One quick note on this–my post wasn’t meant to evaluate Recanati’s work, but merely to look at it as in some ways analogous to the conceptual space in the debates among Mīmāṃsakas over theories of word meaning. However, you’re right to say that Recanati’s view has been criticized on the grounds you cite–that it doesn’t explain how we can successfully communicate (and fail at it).

      • Thanks for the clarification here and above! I always thought that padārtha and śābdabodha were semantic ideas, because they have to do with ārtha (meaning) and cognition. I’m not sure if your clarification shows this to be incorrect (or if it was meant to show this to be incorrect). Happy to be corrected by you.

        • Shyam,
          I think maybe the confusion here is that the Sanskrit term śabda is used in different ways by different authors in different contexts. It can mean a sound (whether a word or not), it can mean a word (as opposed to just a sound), it can be a word that has meaning (so have a semantic sense).

          I think the point that Elisa and I are making is just that, in the context of Śālikanatha’s discussion, if you take śabda in the sense of uttered word, that is not the kind of thing which can involve yogyatā, since yogyatā is a relationship between meanings. Speaking this way, śabda is not an artha, it is a pada.

  2. Malcolm,

    thanks again for making me read Recanati. As for your question, Kumārila speaks of the word-meaning apart from the sentence as a universal, which is then restricted to a specific instance through fitness etc. Prābhākara authors agree on the idea of the word-meaning as a universal (so: what is smārita is a universal). But for the Prābhākaras this universal is then abandoned, since words again get together and convey the specied sentence-meaning. So, it is a sort of dead end.

    It is in this connection also interesting to note that Recanati 2017 reproduces a discussion among the meaning of words and of sentences which evokes the Bhāṭṭa vs. Prābhākara controversy (see p. 382ff on dead metaphors).

    • Elisa,
      Yes, I have seen that both of them talk about the jāti in this process of comprehension, but what I am interested in is how we cognize the jāti. So I believe (and apologies, but I have no time to give citations now) that Kumārila talks about the recognition of the relationship between jāti and vyakti somewhat differently in a few places, such as in the ākṛtivāda in ŚV and in the TV where he discusses lakṣaṇā. There is the question of what that relationship is, metaphysically, and how we understand it. Depending on how we understand it, there might be different views about how semantic narrowing happens. That was the point of bringing in Recanati, as his account is in many ways analogous and he raises a few possible options for this cognition.

      I think that there is a lot going on in his work and elsewhere in contemporary discussion of contextualism that echoes discussion in Mīmāṃsā (and elsewhere in Indian philosophy). However, given the differing starting points and explanatory goals, I’m interested to see how the conceptual space works in different thinkers. That is, would the controversy between Bhāṭṭa and Prābhākara be non-controversy for Recanati (I wonder Kumārila and Śālikanatha’s views might correspond to the TCP and “wrong format” views respectively, which he takes to be compatible)? And if so, what does that tell us–about either debate?

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