Thursday, May 3, 2018

Philosophy of language in the Tantravārttika

Kumārila Bhaṭṭa's Tantravārttika, or Exposition on Ritual Practice, is less frequently discussed by modern philosophers than his Ślokavārttika, or Commentary in Verse (though maybe more than his Ṭuptīkā), probably because it focuses on discussion of the non-injunctive aspects of the Vedas (mantras and other expressions). But it is a rich discussion of interpretive principles and philosophy of language broadly understood, including even some discussion of the purpose of the Mahābhārata.

I have sometimes had people ask about the relationship between "religion" in Indian philosophy (especially Mīmāṃsā) and philosophy of language. Given the way contemporary analytic philosophers talk about language today, it doesn't seem to have much connection to what people think of as religion. It isn't taking a particular scriptural text as its corpus, nor interpretation of that text as a starting-point for hermeneutics. Of course, before talking about Indian philosophy's "religiosity," one would do well to consider the historical origins of contemporary philosophy of language (in Augustine and other biblical theologians/hermeneuticists). And, if we understand religiosity in broader terms as concern with ultimate questions, there are certainly metaphysical and ethical aspects of contemporary analytic philosophy of language!

With that in mind: in reading the Tantravārttika today, I came across a discussion of a problem that is so clearly recognizable as a contemporary problem in semantics, but with a different example sentence, that I laughed out loud:

This is just like in examples such as "rice" ("All the rice has been cooked"), where, because it is used with reference to what has been set aside, the word "all" does not mean all the rice in the entire universe (the trailoka).
यथैवौदनादिषु सर्वशब्दो ऽधिकृतापेक्षत्वान्न त्रैलोक्यं गृह्णाति ... (Sastri 31, Jha 48)
There's a lot of discussion in contemporary philosophy of language about universal quantifiers and their scope. Typically the examples there are things like "All the beer is in the fridge," which tells you something about the culture of modern analytic philosophers, perhaps. At issue is, for instance, problems about what the speaker has said versus implied. Has she said all the beer in the world and just implied something narrower? The (er, commentarial?) literature on that example is pretty big.

Now, it's true that the example sentence in the TV above is part of a longer discussion of the way in which the word "all" is used in a particular kind of expression in the Vedas. These expressions, called arthavādas, are taken to be "motivating speech," by Mīmāṃsakas, since they prompt action in the ritual by figuratively praising (or denigrating) certain actions.

The question about "all" has to do with a ritual case, and about how that universal quantifier should be understood in order for that motivating speech to be useful as a means for performing the ritual. It's true that such Vedic ritual concerns are not the focus of contemporary philosophy (nor is biblical hermeneutics, either). But Mīmāṃsakas such as Kumārila constantly draw on ordinary speech in order to construct a set of principles for interpreting the Vedas. And as others have pointed out, sometimes the focus seems to be more about the philosophical puzzles, and the discussion of Vedic ritual acts as a legitimating reason to discuss these issues.

And there's lots more in the TV: the difference between adjectives like "beauty" (which has different standards for truth-conditions and so can be used in a primary sense accordingly) and nouns like "wealth" (which is used figuratively for non-material things), the purpose of stories in the Mahābhārata, the relationship between what is implied and what is aimed at in a text, the kinds of linguistic examples which are appropriate to discuss in resolving philosophical puzzles, the way in which metaphor and metonymy are related, the inferential-cognitive process of interpretation...

Maybe not all the philosophy of language in the world is in the Tantravārttika, but certainly quite a lot!

References:
Kumārila Bhaṭṭa, Tantravārttika. Translated by Ganganatha Jha. Delhi: Pilgrims Book Pvt. Ltd, 1924.
Śrīmajjaiminipraṇīte Mīmāṃsādarśane. Edited by V. Sastri. Samskrita Granthavali 97. Puṇya: Anandashram, 1932.

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