The role of convention in signification

In his Seśvaramīmāṃsā ad 1.1.12, Veṅkaṭanātha explains that the example of proper names does not prove that language in general depends on convention. He writes that the case of proper names is not a dahanadṛṣṭānta, possibly ‘an example which sets on fire [the whole theory]’.

Why so? Because

प्रकृते यथोपलम्भं स्वभावसहकार्यादिनियमात्*

Because in the case at hand (i.e., language, composed of proper names and common words) there is a restrictive rule regarding the role of intrinsic signification and its auxiliaries according to how [linguistic expressions] are grasped.

In other words, convention, as an auxiliary of intrinsic signification, plays a role, but only in the case of proper names. And the distinction is possible based on one’s experience of linguistic expressions, insofar as linguistic expressions which are not proper names are immediately grasped as significant by people who know the language. By contrast, they might have doubts when they encounter proper names of unknown places or people.

These are, as usual, my thoughts only. Should you have a different understanding, you are welcome to share it. I would be happy and grateful to read it.

*(The editions add a च after प्रकृते, which makes the connection with the previous sentence unclear. The manuscripts provide a better reading, without the च).

About elisa freschi

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

6 Replies to “The role of convention in signification”

  1. Interesting. What might Venkathanatha say about nitya-samaasas that do not have a laukika-vigraha–in other words, compound words with meanings that cannot be decomposed into the meanings of their component parts? For instance, Cardona says that the compound खट्वा-आरूढः means “intemperate person”, though in terms of its component parts its meaning ought to be “one who has climbed into bed”. I would assume that in such cases, the meaning of the compound is conventionally acquired. (There are probably better examples to illustrate my point, but can’t think of one right now.)

  2. If one thinks historically, nityasamāsas speak in favour of convention, but as a Mīmāṃsaka, one might claim that compounds like the one you mention or like kṛṣṇasarpa (meaning a specific snake and not any black snake) are not compounds at all and are intrinsically connected to their meaning, just like common nouns are. Convincing?

    • Elisa,

      A possible problem with your proposal is that the nitya-samaasa-s in question do have alaukika-vigraha. They are syntactically well-formed compounds, and therefore, syntactically, there is nothing to distinguish them from other compounds like राजपुरुष whose meanings are derived compositionally from their constituents.

      So, if they are both syntactically well-formed, why does राजपुरुष qualify as a compound, and खट्वारूढ does not? If there is no reason that can account for this difference, then it would be arbitrary.

      It would be as though H2O composed water molecules in most cases, but in some rare cases, does not compose water molecules, without there being any discernible reason why.

      • I see your point. Now, I should check more sources but I am not able to do it now (would you? A good starting point would be the commentaries on MS 1.1.6–23). However, expanding what I read in Mīmāṃsā texts discussing cases like dadhi vs dadhy (in sandhi), I would say that कृष्णसर्प etc. only *resemble* compounds, but are in fact separate words, just like dadhy is not a modification of dadhi, but a different word which can be used as a substitution of dadhi in determinate cases. Does it make sense?

  3. Elisa,

    The problem seems to be whether one reads a compound in the natural way as a common word. or recognises it as a name for a novel phenomenon or concept. Such technical names undoubtedly arose in craft and medicine, and the Atharvan tradition. But just where that happened. texts got updated and the historical record is scanty. So evidence for early compounds is valuable.

    I can understand that Mimamsakas had no use for such artificial compounds, and continued to read compounds naturally. And when Mandana Misra found vikalpa in Vijnanavada, and debated in relation to nirvikalpa and savikalpa, he went right back to the root sense of kalpa, to anchor a natural reading. I have that insight from Alen Wright Thrasher on The Advaita Vedanta of Brahma-Siddhi, now likely rare.

    Can one say that Advaita Vedanta followed the Mimamsa semantics? With so little known about the Brahma-sutra, I have found Advaita obscure as a tradition, and too often assimilated to some Western perennial philosophy.

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