On the (alleged?) Indian lack of distinction between linguistic and external reality

In his contribution to a recent symposium (Does Asia think differently? –Symposium zu Ehre Ernst Steinkellners), as well as in many other publications of him (e.g., Langage et Réalité: sur un épisode de la pensée indienne, 1999), Johannes Bronkhorst answered that yes, there is a substantial difference between “our” thought and the Indian one, in so far as the latter does not distinguish between purely linguistic problems and genuine ones.

For instance, Indians argued for centuries, according to Bronkhorst, about the ontological status of a linguistic object which is linguistically present before its actual existence, such as a pot in “the potter makes the pot”. Westerners would have immediately labeled the pot as non-existing until it is realised by the potter and would not have not paused on its ontology, whereas Indians never distinguished between linguistic and external reality.

This is an interesting insight, and in fact there are several elements suggesting (as Karl Potter maintained) that the “linguistic turn” occurred in India much earlier than in Europe (note that I am saying the same thing Bronkhorst said, but looking at it from a more favourable perspective), such as the insistence on the analysis of linguistic data in order to solve epistemological or ontological issues (cf. the insistence on the linguistic use śabdaṃ kṛ- within the debate about the ontological status of śabda).

However, many Buddhist schools seem to aptly distinguish between the two (e.g., insofar as language is vikalpa and only the ultimate particular, which escapes language, is real). The same applies, as far as my knowledge reaches, at least also to Mīmāṃsakas. For instance, Rāmānujācārya speaks of karman (the linguistic object) and kriyāphala (the result of the action, as an ontological reality) as two distinct realities (cf. Tantrarahasya, IV §3.13.2: kriyāphalaśali karma).

What do you think? Which evidences for or against the self-assumed equivalence of language and thought did you encounter?

(Cross-posted, with minor differences, on my blog)

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.

10 Replies to “On the (alleged?) Indian lack of distinction between linguistic and external reality”

  1. Very interesting point, Elisa! I dealt with it a bit in my PhdDthesis.
    To put it briefly, different schools held different approaches to the problem. Vaisheshikas believed in the correspondence between language and reality and justified the existence of an extralinguistic entity (e.g. samavaya) applying to the existence of a corresponding language utterance (ayam asya). Buddhists, as you mentioned, distinguished between language and reality. Bhartrihari on different occasions applied both approaches, but also proposed other solutions. In VP 3.3.39-40 he claimed, that the referents of the words are rooted in a special secondary or metaphorical being (upacArasattA). Most probably this concept is close to Buddhist kalpanA, but contrary to Buddhists is considered in positive sence. One more solution to be discovered throughout VP is the idea of a certain paralellism between language and extralinguistic reality, because otherwise everyday activity would be impossible.

    • I can send it to you, if you like, but it is in Russian. I’m planning to write an English paper on this subject.

  2. There’s a long article on a related subject by Collett Cox

    1988. On the Possibility of a Nonexistent Object of Consciousness: Sarvāstivādin and Dārṣṭāntikā Theories. JIABS 11(1): 31-87. Online: https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/jiabs/issue/view/1026

    “The Sarvāstivādins hold that all perception requires an existent object, while the Dārṣṭāntikas admit that in certain cases, the object is nonexistent.” (32)

    • Thank you, Jayarava, I did not know this article and am pleased to find out that it is freely available. Yes, the topic is essentially the same (can we have linguistic/non linguistic cognitions referring to non-existent objects?), although Bronkhorst’s point is even more radical.

  3. I am concerned about these kinds of statements (which about in the Language and Reality book), and specifically about what’s at stake in making them and what the motivation for making them is (is the idea to sketch out “epistemic constraints” in the intellectual history, to figure out what was thinkable and sayable at certain times, to describe “mentalities” or habits of thought?), and of course about the evidentiary basis they’re made on (it’s difficult to claim that any one thinker, or even groups of thinkers, are representative of “Indian thought” at any period). These generalizations often capture something true, but they always run into ativyāpti (something we can deal with), and setting “Indian thought” and “our thought” in a kind of rigged comparison can raise suspicions (something we might not want to deal with).

    • Well, as you know Bronkhorst enjoys bold theories. He leaves the niceties to others and rather focuses in the broad picture. I think that there is a lot of merit in this position, if only one does not fall prey of the flaws you mention (substuncialism, most of all).

  4. I just want to echo Andrew’s apprehensions here. These sorts of theses remind me of how the findings of cultural historians that are heavily thesis-driven are easily taken to be gerrymandered such that personally, I don’t know what to make of them sometimes.

    There are ample, obvious expressions of the language/object divide in Indian philosophy, from at least the sūtra period. We know that the Nyāyasūtra (1.1.4) defines perception as avyapadeśya, which in the early commentaries is taken to mean that perceptual engagement with an object is pre-linguistic and independent of knowledge of an object’s verbal indicator. I understand that this is not an overarching theis about the relationship between world and object, but, following Evgeniya, given the recognition of an extralinguistic existence of some objects for Nyāya/Vaiśeșika, the avenue is clear for reflection on the difference between “merely” linguistic problems and more properly metaphysical problems. This is known to Bronkhorst. So either he is knowingly making an excessive claim to be provocative, or he has something more subtle in mind.

    I am also reminded of the debates between Vyākaraņa and Nyāya on agency. The former, as richly illustrated and analyzed by Cardona in a number of publications, expressly holds that conceptual analysis should follow linguistic practice. Therefore, it is proper to call a car an agent in a straightforward, non-figurative way, as evinced by statements like “The car accelerates quickly”. Nyāya, on the other hand, while often turning to ordinary linguistic practice (vyavahāra) to support philosophical findings, is willing to diverge from it, implicitly holding that ordinary language only goes so far in metaphysical analysis: True agents must have volition, cognition, etc., while the agency imputed to non-sentient beings in ordinary speech must be figurative.

    One must also ask “which Westerners?” in claims like “Westerners would have immediately labeled the pot as non-existing until it is realised by the potter and would not have not paused on its ontology”. One need only look at reference articles like this: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nonexistent-objects/ to appreciate that concern with such language has been a staple of “Western” metaphysics as well.

    Again, this is also not esoteric information, so I am still at a loss as to what is happening.

  5. Good points, Matthew, especially as for the fact that Western philosophy is itself multi-faced and that we will not proceed much in our philosophical journey if we dwell into all details of, say, the satkaryavada, but disregard Western doctrines of causality.
    As for your two examples, I agree with the latter (I also used similar examples coming from Mimamsa to show that Bronkhorst is at least not completely right), but it would be more cogent if you could find an explicit statement of the fact that language is arbitrary and that it is NOT a key to reality. Something like that I found only once, in Somesvara’s commentary on the Tantravartika (and the very rarety of statements which might sound trivial might be significant). Regarding the first example, I think it has a different scope. No one denies that for many schools perception was pre-linguistic, the point is not whether reality is permeated by language (such thesis has only been upheld by Bhartrhari), but the other way round, namely whether an analysis of language can yield interesting results concerning reality. Here I agree with Bronkhorst that many (though not all) Indian thinkers would agree and deem linguistic analysis a legitimate tool to investigate reality.

  6. Thanks for your reply, Elisa. Just a short note on one of your points:

    If the thesis in question is that Indian thinkers held (implicitly or explicitly) that all problems are linguistic, to refute this we need only find contradictory statements to the effect that that some are not linguistic. We don’t need the contrary: “no problems are linguistic”, as you seem to suggest above. This would put too high a burden on one who wants to refute B’s thesis as you’ve given it.

    Apologies if I’ve misread your statement that we need an “explicit statement of the fact that language is arbitrary and that it is NOT a key to reality.”

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