To paraphrase a contemporary philosopher: ‘examples stick around in philosophy in a way they don’t in other fields such as linguistics.’ There is some truth to this. I cannot imagine a philosopher today who doesn’t know Frege’s famous problem: ‘the morning star is the evening star’ or Russell’s: ‘The King of France is bald.’
In this blog post, I want to talk about a puzzle (or, more accurately: a set of problem-data) that played a crucial role in a debate on philosophy of language in premodern South Asia for nearly a millennium. This specific set of data was first attested in Maṇḍanamiśra’s Bhāvanāviveka (composed c. 680-690 CE?) and remained a key puzzle for Sanskrit intellectuals thinking about the semantics of verbs and theories of action for a millennium.
If we think about events expressed by verbs, such as: ‘one makes a pot’ (ghaṭaṃ karoti) or: ‘Theodore cooks’ (devadattaḥ pacati), we can identify two elements as candidates for the verbal suffix’s referent(s):
i) physical movement (parispanda)
ii) mental exertion (yatna), i.e., making a conscious effort
On the one hand, the very fact of these two potential candidates presents a challenge for a unified theory of the verbal suffix’s semantics. However, what about events where only one of these two candidates is present? How do we develop a unified theory of the semantics of verbs if there is no one consistent element across all verbs?
We first find this puzzle in Maṇḍana’s Bhāvanāviveka via the set of problem-data:
1. Verbs which express conscious effort, but not physical movement:
i) One sits [in place] (āste)
ii) One sacrifices (yajate) *For Mīmāṃsakas, the verbal root yaj- directly signifies the mental commitment/decision on the part of the sacrifice’s patron (yajamāna) to perform a sacrifice, not the performance thereof.
iii) One cognizes (jānāti)
2. Verbs which express physical movement, but not conscious effort:
i) The riverbank falls (kūlam patati)
ii) The chariot goes (ratho gacchati)
iii) The fire burns (agnir jvalati)
This puzzle/data set is presented early in the Bhāvanāviveka (vss. 4-5), but clearly informs the position of a real interlocutor, against whose position Maṇḍana articulates his own conclusion at the tail-end of his essay (vs. 47 ff.), as the interlocutor’s position addresses precisely this puzzle. I translate the interlocutor’s position:
On that, some say:
[Śabara] understood mental exertion (prayatna) when he said: ‘one should strive’ (yateta) in his commentary [on 2.1.1].
Due to the frequent usage of verbs to [describe] insentient things, there is no understanding of the linguistic usage as figurative. 47.
[Śabara] has shown that the verb’s referent is mental effort conducive to the occurrence of the result [when he said]: ‘one should strive (yateta) so that something comes into being.’ The usage, however, of a verb [to describe] an insentient thing is based on figurative usage. [But] we don’t understand it as figurative due to its frequent usage [in this way].
The interlocutor’s attempt at a unified theory of the semantics of the verb’s suffix is that it only directly signifies mental exertion (prayatna), and the interlocutor accounts for cases where we only understand physical movement (parispanda) is to treat these as indirect signification/figurative usage (such as in: ‘the chariot goes’). However, says the interlocutor, we don’t overtly cognize these cases as figurative, due to our high frequency usage of verbs in this way (think like a dead metaphor –> even though it’s not the literal meaning, we treat it as such).
To this account, Maṇḍana’s answer is:
However, this answer hinges upon the establishment of [mental exertion and not physical movement as the directly signified sense], and there is no proof of that when our cognition [of both] is the same and when we lack another reason, because it isn’t possible to preclude that we could take it the other way.
Therefore, [we] believe the meaning of the verb: ‘one makes’ (karoti) has as its nature the commonality of a cessation of inertia, and the arising of an awareness of that occurs in both cases. 48.
For the meaning of ‘one makes’ (karoti) is a cessation of inertia, due to the absence of an awareness of action in something that is inert. And an awareness of falling from inertia is twofold: due to conscious effort in the self (ātman) and due to physical movement in something other [than the self].
Maṇḍana’s solution to articulate a unified theory of the verbal suffix’s semantics is to find a commonality between mental exertion and physical movement, and present that as the suffix’s directly signified sense. This commonality is the cessation of inertia. Whether the chariot begins to physically move or I begin to mentally think about something, this constitutes a cessation of inertia. The only difference is the form that cessation of inertia takes, physical or mental. Thus, on Maṇḍana’s account, both mental exertion and physical movement can be treated as directly signified (these are the two ways inertia ceases), even though we’re only admitting the verbal suffix to have one directly signified sense (the cessation of inertia).
Although Maṇḍana’s specific position here doesn’t gain a huge following, Maṇḍana sets the stage here for many subsequent intellectuals to carve out their own positions against his (more on this in relation to the Naiyāyikas in my dissertation, I suppose).
This puzzle remains relevant for a millennium. Sanskrit intellectuals nearly one thousand years later such as Raghunātha Śiromaṇi and the Grammarian revivalist Koṇḍabhaṭṭa thought about this very puzzle in articulating their own new theories — although perhaps through second-hand sources.
Turning away from this specific case, the use of philosophical puzzles in premodern South Asia raises further intellectual-historical questions, such as: how are philosophical puzzles approached methodologically by these Sanskrit intellectuals? What is the role and status of these puzzles in relation to the positions that these Sanskrit intellectuals develop?
A good answer is probably nuanced and context-dependent. In the case-study explored above, Maṇḍana develops his own new position as a unitary theory of the semantics of verbs in relation to the problematic data set. However, Maṇḍana’s solution is still carved out within the fold of certain Bhāṭṭa commitments (e.g., the archetypal Vedic injunction: svargakāmo yajeta has the semantic structure: yāgena svargam bhāvayet ‘one should bring heaven into being via sacrifice’). Likewise, Maṇḍana’s Bhāvanāviveka is the first extant hostile engagement with Prabhākara’s theory of the command (niyoga): Maṇḍana is not simply developing his theory of the semantics of verbs in a vacuum, but within a very specific context while navigating many other goals and agendas that I didn’t touch upon in this post.
However, some centuries after Maṇḍana, in the context of the Prābhākara and Naiyāyika debate on philosophy of language, the game is not one of developing a new position in relation to puzzles, but rather of deploying puzzles and problematic data against the opponent to undercut their positions and to show the superiority of one’s tradition’s established doctrine by squaring it with the data.
This shift in how puzzles are used appears to be tied to the nature of the debate: we’re now in a context where Prābhākaras and Naiyāyikas are refining established doctrines, not developing radically new theories.
Anyways, these latter thoughts probably need some further refinement … don’t quote me on this …
If anyone has any thoughts about this or other philosophical puzzles they’ve encountered and thought about, do let me know 🙂