- The Word is the World:Nondualism in Indian Philosophy of Language
As someone writing on texts and thinkers in the Indian philosophical tradition, I should begin by criticizing the departments of philosophy at Western universities for the narrow and colored view they have of Eastern philosophies. However, since I am at present speaking at a department of philosophy (at the University of Hawai'i) that has probably done more for Eastern philosophies than any other department of philosophy in the Western world, I may not come across as credible if I voice the by-now-familiar but justified complaint of scholars interested in Eastern philosophies: I may be seen as an ungracious guest if not as someone whose statement is contradicted immediately by the evidence around him. If, after all the hospitality I have received from Professors Arindam Chakrabarti, Vrinda Dalmiya, Ramanath Sharma, and Eliot Deutsch and several students, I act as if I do not remember it, that karma will make me, in my next life, a politician!
Although Hawai'i's enviable philosophy department has thus deprived me of a provocative opening, I retain the freedom to express apprehension about certain tendencies I detect in contemporary philosophers. Since I am primarily a Sanskritist and Indologist and do not manage to keep up with writings in philosophy to any significant extent, my knowledge of these tendencies could be flawed. In fact, I would be happy if I turn out to be wrong. But, let me, while I have the floor, give the philosophers among you the benefit of knowing how a dabbling outsider sees their field.
The first tendency I would like to talk about has a direct bearing on the title of my talk. In fact, I have made it the first tendency because it can be related straight-away to my title. A reduction is implicit in the phrase "the word is the world." It clearly speaks of reducing the diversity we call "world" to a singularity named "word." I sense a general apprehension about such reductive endeavors among philosophers of the present and the recent past. Anyone coming to a conclusion like "X is Y" in the case of fundamental entities is suspected to be naive, unaware of the complexities of philosophical investigations. What this person may see as a remarkable summation following a great deal of hard thinking can be seen by many others as something too simple to be valid. This may, to some extent, be due to the psychology of specialists: they become accustomed to complexity to such an extent that in their view a simple, two-item pronouncement at a basic level amounts to being ultimately useless. Another possibility is that the reduction is sometimes so unexpected or so breathtaking that its very unexpectedness or breathtaking nature makes academics jittery. However, we must remember that simplicity is not identical with validity. Nor does a dizzying sweep necessarily mean skipping the logical steps [End Page 452] in between;1 otherwise, a phenomenon like the mathematician Srinivasa Aiyangar Ramanujan (1887-1920) would not have occurred. Supercomputers would not be working on figuring out the steps to the valid deductions Ramanujan made without specifying the stages through which his thinking passed. Thus, it does not behoove a philosopher to reject a reductive pronouncement out of hand. If he is not convinced by it, neither its simplicity nor its air of reckless abandon absolves him of his responsibility to counter it with good empirical and logical arguments.
The second tendency that generates resistence against formulations of the type "the word is the world" is reluctance to see truth as relative—as susceptible to levels.2 It is quite understandable why certain philosophers, including Madhva and Vallabha in the Indian tradition, feel that truth would not be truth if it were to change its nature according to the station or stance of the person doing the determination. One must concede to them, at least as far as the ultimate truth is concerned, the right to cry "foul" if they sense that a definition agreed upon in the beginning is being changed midstream. There is a sense of methodological security in the supposition that truth is...