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Reviewed by:
  • A Śabda Reader: Language in Classical Indian Thought ed. by Johannes Bronkhorst
  • Andrew Ollett (bio)
A Śabda Reader: Language in Classical Indian Thought. Historical Sourcebooks in Classical Indian Thought. Translated and edited by Johannes Bronkhorst. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. Pp. ix + 360. Hardcover $95.00, isbn 978-0-231189-40-8.

The whole of the premodern Indian world appears shot through with language. The analysis of language, first undertaken to preserve the sacred texts of the Brahmins, achieved such conceptual sophistication that it served as the model, directly or indirectly, for almost all traditions of systematic thought, regardless of religious affiliation. Language was implicated in all the most important philosophical debates, regarding the nature of reality and the foundations of knowledge, and became an object of philosophical debate itself. Given the enormous tangle of sources that address these issues, spanning several traditions of thought, and given their complexity, if not abstruseness, it would be difficult for anyone to produce a “historical sourcebook” on language in premodern India. That would require selecting primary sources that give nonspecialist readers a sense of what, exactly, Indian thinkers talked about when they talked about language, presenting them in accessible translations that nevertheless conveyed their sophistication, and contextualizing them in a historical narrative. If anyone could do that, it would be Johannes Bronkhorst. His Śabda Reader goes from the Brāhmaṇas (mid-1st millennium BCE) to Kauṇḍa Bhaṭṭa and Dharmarāja (17th c. CE) and an enormous range of texts in between, representing Buddhist, Brahmanical, Jain and skeptical (cārvāka) positions.

The readings are organized into eight chapters: “The Brahmanical Background,” “Buddhist Thought: Sources of Inspiration,” “The Grammarian Patanjali,” “The Special Place of Sanskrit and the Veda,” “Self-Contradictory Sentences,” “Do Words Affect Cognition?”, “Words and Sentences,” and “Other Denotative Functions of the Word.” Bronkhorst motivates and contextualizes his selection of readings in a separate “Introduction” (60 pages), with sections corresponding to each chapter in the reader itself, to which all of the notes refer. Readers are referred to Bronkhorst’s 2016 book, How the Brahmins Won, for “fuller documentation” (p. ix) of issues discussed in the “Introduction.” The organization is not exactly chronological, but is not not chronological, either. Rather it follows questions that are picked up at particular moments in history and, in many cases, continue to be discussed for centuries afterwards. Hence the first chapter, concerning linguistic speculation in the Vedic tradition, begins [End Page 1] with the Brāhmaṇas and ends with Abhinavagupta. By contrast, the final two chapters, on sentence meaning and secondary meaning, presuppose many centuries of scholastic debate on the nature of language.

Although Bronkhorst frames the overarching concerns of each chapter in his introduction, he usually leaves it to the reader to figure out how the selections are related to each other, or why the selections are presented in a certain order. The introduction leads us to expect, for example, that the chapter titled “Buddhist Thought: Sources of Inspiration,” will focus on the ideas of the Milindapañha, the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, Nāgārjuna, and Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. These works fall within a certain historical frame, albeit a large one, and one that Bronkhorst does not name (we could, following Schopen, call it “the Middle Period of Indian Buddhism”). And they are unified by the insight that everyday experience is structured by our language and does not straightforwardly map onto an underlying reality—an insight which Bronkhorst also does not name (we could call it “nominalism”). In the reader, however, only 13 of the 53 pages of this chapter present Buddhist sources. Most of the remainder is taken up by a discussion of the unit of meaning, or sphoṭa, by Brahmanical authors, including a long and very technical passage from Jayanta’s Nyāyamañjarī. The transitions between readings can sometimes seem associative.

Bronkhorst claims to have attempted “to resist the temptation of cherrypicking, i.e., of choosing topics on the basis of their similarity to or relevance for modern language philosophy” (p. ix). It is certainly true that he draws no comparisons to other philosophical traditions...


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