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Gaston Bachelard I If we cast an inquiring glance over the range of beliefs and genuine knowledge that we claim to possess, we cannot fail to notice that they arise from more than a single source. Knowledge is unquestionably generated through perception and inference; nevertheless, it is also transmitted to us through the speech-acts of others which is to say, through verbal testimony. Knowledge generated through linguistic performances or verbal testimony is somewhat similar to the basic model of communicatively generated bits of knowledge like when a bird emits a squawk on seeing a predator and transmits to other birds the information that a predator is in the vicinity.1 If I were to utter the words “Watch out!” (In all sincerity) while crossing the road, it would communicate to the hearer the need to be aware of an impending danger. Although it is an attempt to urge someone to use his or her perceptual faculty, it is nevertheless conveying more than the need to literally “watch”. By using words, I am generating in the auditor a knowledge-bit that roughly translates into an indication of potential harm. The hearer receives more than an injunction to see or to infer. The opponents of verbal testimony will in this case try to reduce the hearer’s subsequent response of noticing traffic as an inference based on my utterance, which acts as an inference prompter. There is considerable disagreement among different schools about whether verbal testimony is an independent means of knowledge. Schools like the Vaisesikas, the Buddhists as well as
It must be noted that the response of other birds or animals to this “squawk” does not constitute knowledge in any strong sense and could be better explained as an instrument to activate certain instinctual response patterns.
the Prabhakaras reduce ordinary non-scriptural verbal testimony to inference whereas other schools defend its independent status. The claim which maintains sabda as a pramana relates not only to the relevance of authority in the epistemological context but also concerns the modes in which one knows through language, which is to say through words grammatically concatenated into sentences. Verbal testimony is only recently emerging in Western discussion, from a state of neglect and is being increasingly understood as a genuine means of knowledge rather than as a residual form of dogmatism or a naïve acceptance of authority without qualifications. Audible words and Speech are the pivotal elements in classical Indian epistemology. Yet, it does not seem that verbal testimony can be restricted to spoken forms of language only. The suggestion that Sabdapramana is primarily concerned with spoken utterances (Mohanty) fails to see that Indian schools use Sabdapramana to defend agamic or scriptural knowledge, which may or may not be derivable from an author or a speaker. In the case of the Kashmir Saiva philosophers, for instance, knowledge is also generated through reciting and reading the verses of the Saiva agamas. This is also a tenet of other schools likes the Jainas. Similarly on encountering a “Road Closed” sign, (posted by the authorities i.e. a felicitous sign and not scrawled on a piece of paper in crayon i.e. an infelicitous sign) while driving, we do not, in most cases, keep driving to determine perceptually whether the road is actually closed. Neither do we start working on inferential structures that will enable us to react to these kinds of semiotic phenomena. The felicitous sign suffices to transmit to us the knowledge that the road is indeed closed. On associating the words “Road Closed’ with a non-deceitful “speaker” we do not need a further inferential process, we offer a direct assent to the statement.
Our information about the world would be quite limited if we insisted on a direct perceptual or inferential basis for all the information we receive and accept as knowledge. Testimony through language is above all a means to overcome the limitations of the individual perceptual apparatus and inferential opportunities. Hindu philosophical traditions including Nyaya, Vedanta and Mimamsa have accepted verbal testimony as an independent avenue of knowledge, which is not reducible to perception or inference and yet stands on an equal footing with both of these. The claim of the proponents of verbal testimony is, as Ganeri puts it, that “the language faculty is a sui generis epistemic faculty, reducible to neither perception nor inference nor to some combination of those two” (Ganeri, 15). The question here is not of a direct assent to all utterances which a hearer encounters but of the conditions under which assent is noninferentially given to certain utterances and the conditions under which this assent turns into testimonial knowledge.
II In the astika schools, especially in some Mimamsa and Vedanta writers, there is a tendency to consider primarily Vedic statements as verbal testimony. However the idea of “knowing by being told” (Chakrabarti) is larger in scope. The philosophically interesting position is one that holds both Vedic and laukika (non-vedic or worldly) utterances as capable of producing testimonial knowledge. On this issue, there are distinctions even among the orthodox Mimamsa schools. The Bhatta Mimamsa philosophers consider both vedic and non-vedic utterances as being potential cases of Sabdapramana whereas the Prabhakaras contend that the knowledge which is produced on the basis of non-Vedic utterances is actually derived from an
inferential act (Goswami, 47). The Nyaya philosophers accept both Vedic (sabda-visesa) and non-Vedic (sabda-samanya) utterances as possible sources of knowledge (Nyaya Sutras 1.1.7). However, they introduce a qualification as to the kinds of statements that can be accepted as means of knowledge. These statements for the Naiyayikas have to be aptavakya, which is to say they have to be utterances of competent and non-secretive speakers. The inclusion of this qualification in the Nyaya scheme of language as epistemic faculty is an instance of refining and strengthening the concept of testimonial knowledge. These conditions are considered applicable by the Naiyayikas to the speaker as well as to the hearer. For instance the speaker has to understand the language in which he is being addressed. The Buddhists famously reject testimonial knowledge as it is presented in the Hindu systems. Moksakaragupta’s epitome of the Dinnaga and Dharmakirti tradition of Buddhist philosophy offers a set of arguments against verbal testimony and the possibility of testimonial knowledge. Arguably, the conceptual fulcrum of his (or for that matter the Buddhist) rejection of verbal testimony is the Buddhist rejection of relations which is repeatedly affirmed by Dharmakirti as “sambandho nasti tatvatah” (in reality there is no relation) in his SambandhaPariksa. Our aim in this paper is to offer a critical exposition of Moksakaragupta’s Buddhist arguments against Sabdapramana. Since the Buddhist anti-realism about relation is at the heart of the issue it is important to ask if the opponents of Buddhism are able to affirm verbal testimony only through an explicit or implicit affirmation of relation as an element of the metaphysical furniture of the world. Can there be a knowing by being told or a knowing through words if we have denied a relation between words and a world?
IV The Buddhist believes that verbal testimony could be an acceptable means of knowledge if valid knowledge could, as a rule be generated from this source. Validity obtains, for the Buddhist, in the agreement of the knowledge with the external object, which is to say that the knowledge has avisamvadakatva, i.e. the property of being non-discordant or harmonious with experience. Being an anti-realist about relation the Buddhist is led to admit that a chasm, as it were, divides or separates the word from the external object (TB, 32). Through Dharmakirti we know that the Buddhist rejection of relation is quite thoroughgoing, yet this rejection of relation is restricted to the rejection of the word and the meant-entity or extra-linguistic object. This is in sharp contrast to those schools, which accept Sabdapramana because they affirm a relation between the word and the meant entity, whether it is essential or conventional. Consider the Mimamsa Sutra of Jaimini, which is a central text in the discussion of Sabdapramana. Here Jaimini validates verbal instruction as a source of knowledge by first establishing that there is indeed a relation between words and the entities they denote. One can further question such a thesis as to whether the relation is between the phonemes which make up the word and its meaning or is it a relation between the word as a unit and the extralinguistic object which it denotes. The status of the relata are relevant to the extent that the advocates of verbal testimony are affirming testimonial knowledge of non-linguistic, worldly objects which is to say not meanings as Platonic entities or purely mental meant-entities. If the claim is that words take us to the world or enable us to measure and map the world, then one of the relata has to be worldly i.e. external objects.
Moksakaragupta contends that if there were to be a relation between the word and the external object, it would have to be either a relation of identity or a causal relation. Of course, the identity relation need not be seriously entertained because quite simply the word is not the external object. However, in order to evaluate the Buddhist position we need to examine if the Buddhist attempt to understand the word-world relation only as a strong relation viz. causality or identity holds merit. Even if we were to entertain the possibility of the causal relation, we need not consider this in the strong sense like Moksakaragupta does by seeking the word among the material and efficient causes. One alternative would be to suggest that indeed the word-world relation in that a word causes the cognition of a worldly object. For instance, “table” does not cause a table, but it is causally efficient in producing a cognition of a table. As we mentioned earlier, this cognition can be produced under certain conditions, that is to say, these conditions have to satisfied before words can be epistemically efficient. The Buddhist believes that if there were a relation between word and thing then when a word is spoken, this relation would effectively make the thing meant by the word available to all listeners. If the word agni were to be uttered before a man from Nicobar, by virtue of the relation between agni and fire, this man should be able to understand the meaning of the word. So the Buddhist claim is that it is through convention that we fix upon fire when we hear agni, which dissolves the possibility of a distinct entity called relation. For the Buddhist relation is a metaphysical inflation which cold be explained away as an exaggeration of the conventional connection between words and things shared by a linguistic community. The man from Nicobar will fail to associate fire with agni not because of the absence of a relation but because of his failure to meet the basic conditions under which knowledge through sabda becomes possible. The word-thing relation is not epistemologically efficacious
unconditionally and requires, among other things, the hearer to understand the language of the speaker. The Buddhist further asks as to how is it that a word-thing relation could be sustained given the different things people denote by the same word. Or it may even be the case that agni in the language of the man from Nicobar could mean a broom. If indeed there were a relation between the word and the thing, then just as a wheat seed can produce nothing other than a shoot of wheat from itself (and not a donkey), similarly the word should not produce other than what it is thus connected to by means of this relation. This particular kind of relation, it seems, does not stand in isolation but is sustained by a relational complex such as diction, grammar, syntax which all need to be actively present for an utterance to generate knowledge. Does this diminish the force of the word-world relation? Bhartrhari presented us in the SambandhaSamuddesa of the Vakyapadiya, with models for understanding this relation. As Houben points out, from Karika 52 onwards Bhartrhari is less keen on demonstrating the existence of a perfectly stable relation between word and thing, which is managed without negating the reality and reliability of this relation (Houben, 273). Just as the relation between a karana (instrument) and a karma (action) is regulated by the actual performance of the action, similarly the relation between the sabda and the thing is is regulated by the “function of expressing”. Bhartrhari here is supporting the claim that the relation is epistemically efficacious only if the the conditions like the attentiveness (a function of the mind) on the part of the speaker are met. Thus the relation can lead to knowledge only I fthe causal complex of testimony generating conditions are present. The Buddhist expects an account (of relation) of a stable and exhaustive sort, in the sense that it gives us an unqualified access to the entirety of the thing expressed. This however is an inflated expectation, which rejects the possibility of a minimal account of this relation. The
relation can efficaciously express the thing or some aspects of the thing thereby under the appropriate conditions generating knowledge of the thing. It seems that “camel” gives one a piece of knowledge about a camel without divulging details about the structure of the camel’s stomach etc. The word still enables one to distinguish a camel from a rabbit or a philosopher. The opponent of verbal testimony would be hard pressed to defend the claim that the ability to distinguish one thing from another does not qualify as knowledge till it has perceptual support. Words, like the senses can express or reach their objects only if they are “applied”. Just as we cannot see if the condition of turning our gaze toward the objects we desire to see is not met. Similarly the word has to meet certain conditions of application to the object, in order to express it (Bhartrhari, 29). This is consonant with the Nyaya conditions for obtaining verbal testimony, which we have mentioned earlier. In neither Bhartrhari nor any other proponent of the word-world relation is the claim that the knowledge or the presence of this relation is a sufficient condition for reaching the things the words seek to express. Merely because there is a semantic fit between a word and a thing does not mean that the word is capable of generating knowledge about that thing under all circumstances. Perhaps this can be illustrated from an example from Kumarila. In debating the question of relation (Kumarila, 354) he argues against the claim that relation is both existent and non-existent by citing the case of a white color being put before a blind person and then before a person with sight. It is not the case that the color exists in the latter case but is non-existent in the first case. It is just that the conditions i.e. capacity for perception of the color are not there in the first case and are present in the second. Moksakara questions the possibility of obtaining one of the most relevant conditions for generating verbal knowledge viz. a authoritative, non-deceitful or truthful person as speaker. His argument runs on the premise that truthfulness, thus construed is a quality of the mind. The
access to another person is limited to his physical features and to his linguistic actions. On the Buddhist view there is no access to the intentions of the speaker and hence the very condition of trustworthiness or a non-deceitful speaker cannot be met. This criticism may be missing the point that it is not a matter of inferring something on the basis of access to someone’s intentions. Knowing by being told is not knowing by told the speaker’s intentions as well as the content of his statements. The knowledge to be transmitted, episodic or otherwise occurs through the understanding of the meaning of the words used. If we were to seek to know the intentions of the speaker then we would have to use a combination of past-experience and inferences on that basis to arrive at the truthfulness of someone’s intention. The Buddhist then is faced with two alternatives either there can be no such thing as justification of someone’s status as a truthful speaker or indeed using inference we can determine someone as non-secretive and non-deceitful. In the case of the former we would run into problems with everyday communication because there would be no way of ascertaining what a person wants to communicate with us; for all we know he might be intentionally misleading us leaving us always in a state of doubt. With the second alternative, if we use an inference to grant someone, say a doctor, (the inference being that this doctor with medical degree does not lie to his patients, therefore he is not lying to me about my condition) the status of a non-deceitful speaker then why can we not consider his statements to be worthy of direct assent under the appropriate circumstances? Is inference itself also questionable in this context? It seems absurd to say that even if we were to encounter a person thus determined as “apta” even then we cannot be content with his telling us so but will need a further insight into the inferential or perceptual reasons which inform his utterance. The Buddhist argument that words
denote the intentions of the speaker rather than the external objects does not reject the claims of verbal testimony. We could argue that even if we concede that words denote intentions, the Buddhist has to admit a relation between intentions and things, which is not completely arbitrary. However if the intention cannot be coupled with any random selection of phonemes then the relation between the intention and the thing has bled into the specific words chosen to express the intention. Therefore there is indeed a relation, however derivative, between the word and the world. The man from Nicobar has to begin a program of acculturation in the linguistic if he wants to be know by being told or he will have to rest content with his own perceptual and inferential abilities V The position being defended here does not concern itself with the eternity or non-eternity of the word-world relation as the Grammatians or Bhatta philosophers do. The relation between a word and the thing the word denotes need not be known in any metaphysically complete manner. The question that can be asked here is whether this relation needs to be known at all in understanding the denotation of words. Would it be inconceivable that when I hear the word “chair” I directly cognise the chair without cognising the relation of “c h a i r” with the object? In other words as opposed to the Bhatta position which requires cognition/awareness of relation between word and object to cognise meaning. It may be the case that the relation needs to cognised on the first instance of encountering a word. However, relation could still perform its function without generating its own cognition on each instance of hearing the word. If we were to follow Helaraja in understanding this relation to be of adhyasa, (superimposition) then the word and the world would be superimposed on each other.
Yet, even in this superimposition relation, the specific mode of relation need not always be cognised as distinct object. The semantic tie does not produce knowledge of meaning in the untutored man from Nicobar by its mere existence; neither can the mere psychological associative response of someone to a sentence that she hears be called knowledge by testimony. One direction this diagnosis of the Buddhist position may take us is toward the claim that epistemic causation may be a separate kind of causation- neither wholly psychological nor wholly non-cognitive or naturalistic.
References Moksakaragupta Bauddhatarkabhasa tr Kajiyama in Collected Papers Tokyo : Tokyo University Press 1989 Gaaneri, Jonaardon Goswami, Ashok Houben, Jan Semantic Powers Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999 Critique of Sabda New Delhi: Satguru, 1991 Sambandha-Sammudesa Groningen: Egbert Forsten 1995 Jha, Ganganath (tr.) Slokavartika of Kumarila Bhatta New Delhi: Satguru , Publications, 1993 Nyaya Sutras of Gautama New Delhi: MLBD, 1984
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