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  • Semantic Powers: Meaning and the Means of Knowing in Classical Indian Philosophy
  • Harold Coward
Semantic Powers: Meaning and the Means of Knowing in Classical Indian Philosophy. By Jonardon Ganeri. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. x + 266.

In Semantic Powers: Meaning and the Means of Knowing in Classical Indian Philosophy, Jonardon Ganeri adds to our understanding of the Nyāya philosophy of language in the modern English-speaking world. Building on Bimal Matilal's introduction to Nyāya thought in Matilal's foundational Epistemology Logic and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis (1971) and on Karl Potter and Sibajiban Bhattacharyya's Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika from Gangeśa to Raghunatha Siromani (1993), Ganeri's clearly written book valuably extends our knowledge of the Nyāya philosophy of language by its exposition of the seventeenth-century Nyāya philosopher Gadādhara's Saktivāda or "Essay on Semantic Power." Ganeri's exposition is based on having read the first half of the Saktivāda text with Matilal, before the latter's untimely death, and the second half with Bhattacharyya in Calcutta.

In the Saktivāda, Gadādhara defends key Nyāya claims as to how language conveys meaning. In the first half of the text, the author deals with such questions as whether languages are convention-based, whether the central function of language is as an instrument of knowing, whether word meaning or sentence meaning is conceptually prior, and whether the notion of meaning is reducible to physical and/or psychological concepts. In the second half, Gadādhara looks at the semantic problems connected with particular constructions: notably proper and theoretical names, anaphors, indexicals, and the quantifiers. The English exposition of Gadādhara's text offered by Ganeri in this book covers the same topics.

According to Gadādhara and the Nyāya philosophy, "the language faculty is a sui generis epistemic faculty, reducible to neither perception nor inference nor some combination of these two. The question for the Naiyāyika is: what properties must the language faculty have if it is in this way to be a source of knowledge?" (p. 15). The Nyāya approach also places an emphasis on testimony as a valid source of knowledge (pramāna), which it understands simply as the transmission by language of knowledge from the speaker to the hearer. The "Communication-intention" variable, discussed by recent thinkers such as McDowell, is not dealt with by Nyāya thinkers, who would deny that the acquisition of knowledge by testimony involves anything like the recognition of the speaker's intentions. Rather, the Nyāya thesis is "that understanding typically consists in direct, non-inferential assent, is in sharp contrast to the assumption implicit in McDowell's position: that assenting to another's utterance is never direct, but always depends on the speaker's intentions, or of the speech-act performed by the speaker" (p. 17). In supporting the Nyāya position, Ganeri appeals to Frege's theory of understanding.

The basic idea in the Nyāya philosophy of language is that each of us is endowed with a language faculty, analogous to our perceptual faculty, which generates beliefs from perceived utterances. It has a meaning function. As Ganeri puts it: [End Page 419]

My testimonial faculty fixes, as it were, a mapping from utterances of a given language to belief contents. The 'meaning' of a statement for me is, by definition, the belief content to which it is mapped by my testimony faculty. If I am able to understand every statement I hear, the language processing mechanism which underpins this faculty must have a certain compositional structure, and that leads to an assignment of belief-content components to subsequential elements in the language, (p. 29)

This thought of Gadādhara, dating from about 1700 C.E., resonates with Chomsky's contemporary ideas of "deep structure" and, in classical Indian philosophy, with Bhartṛhari's fifth-century notion of innate-structuring ideas within consciousness (see Coward and Raja, Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, vol. 5). Like Bhartṛhari, Gadādhara takes the sentence to be the irreducible meaning-bearing unit of language.

While Karl Potter and Sibajiban Bhattacharyya's volume 6 of The Encyclopedia...