How exactly does one seize the meaning of a word? K. Yoshimizu 2011 (and Kataoka forthc.) on Dignāga and Kumārila

We all know that for Dignāga the meaning of a word is apoha ‘exclusion’. But how does one seize it and avoid the infinite regress of excluding non-cows because one has understood what “cow” means? Kataoka at the last IABS maintained (if I understood him correctly) that Dignāga did not directly face the problem of how could one seize the absence of non-cows. He also explained that the thesis he attributes to Hattori and Yoshimizu, which makes the apoha depend on the seizing of something positive (e.g., one seizes the exclusion of non-cows because one seizes the exclusion of dewlap, etc.) contradicts the negative nature of apoha, since it indirectly posits positive entities, such as dewlaps. But this leaves the question of how apoha can take place in the worldly experience open. One might object that it is not a problem at all, since apoha explains how language can work a priori and independent of its actual usage, in which many other factors cross-influence each other.
If you are still looking for an every-day way of implementing apoha, you can have a look at Yoshimizu 2011 (JIPh 39), which tries to offer a viable solution to the application of apoha by actual language users.

K. Yoshimizu shows passages of the Mahābhāṣya showing that the denotation of gauḥ is described as involving various elements, such as dewlap, horns, hooves, humpback. According to Yoshimizu, Dignāga maintains that in actual usage language users acknowledge the presence of this elements in order to recognise what is a cow (and their absence in order to recognise what is a non-cow). Yoshimizu says that is process is akin to what contemporary linguists call “componential analysis”. He quotes passages from Dignāga’s PS which apply it even to proper names (since also “Ḍitta” describes a set of qualities, such as being adulterine, having one-eye only, etc.).

Componential analysis cannot work, by contrast, for the “founder” of Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā, Kumārila Bhaṭṭa (who knew Dignāga and criticised his work), since he maintains that the universal “cowness” is directly perceivable and that this is what allows us to recognise a cow before we recognise its dewlap, etc. In this sense, the meaning of a word denotes, for Kumārila, a universal, and can only secondarily be analysed in its sense-components.

This leads Yoshimizu to a further question, namely, how can one perform an injunction, if this referes to a universal? One would never be able to bring either the universal cowness, nor all its instantiations (i.e., all cows) once one has been enjoined to “Bring the cow!”. Fortunately enough, the word “cow” in such a command refers to all individual cows, but one by one (so Kumārila in the TV). How is this possible? Because Kumārila distinguishes two elements in each prescription (what is uddeśyamāna and what is upādīyamāna ), which Yoshimizu equates to what contemporary linguists call “topic” and “comment”. The “comment” adds new information, whereas the “topic” is what we know already about. This part is only needed in order to understand what the comment is about. For instance: “cow” is “comment” and then “topic” in the next two sentences (the example is mine, no responsibility of Yoshimizu in any mistake it may contain):

“That one is my cow” (topic: “That one” (you already know about it since a gesture indicates it); comment: “my cow” (you did not know before the speaker had a cow))

“Bring the cow” (topic: “the cow” (you already know that the speaker has a cow, and which one it is); comment: “Bring [it]!”)

Once the “cow” is made into a “topic”, one knows already its number (in this case, singular) and can identify it easily. Thus, one does no longer need to bring all possible cows sharing the universal “cowness”.

Yoshimizu’s conclusion is that Kumārila leans towards pragmatics, whereas Dignāga implicitly presupposes some type of componential analysis.

A dewlap is not always sufficient as a probans to infer a cow

What do you think of the application of contemporary theories to classical Indian philosophy? Do they help or bewilder you?

More on Kataoka’s view of apoha can be read here If you are in Vienna and you want to discuss these topics with Yoshimizu, consider attending this workshop. (cross-posted on my personal 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:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

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