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Ontology and linguistics

Can there be linguistics without ontology?

The context principle and some Indian controversies over Meaning is a milestone in Indian studies, and in the history of their interaction with mainstream (i.e. Western) philosophy. Since it was published in 1988 on Mind (one of the top-5 journals in Philosophy, inaccessible for most authors), virtually everyone (in Indian philosophy) has read it.

Have you also re-read it?

I re-read it after some years this Summer and I have to admit that it was again a surprise. The article starts with a discussion of the Context principle in Frege and Quine (does the principle mean that words HAVE no meaning outside a sentence, or that their meaning can only be UNDERSTOOD within a sentence?). In this connection, Matilal and Sen discuss a strong and a weak interpretation of the Context principle (according to whether it should answer the first or the second question). They end up saying that the strong interpretation clashes with Frege's later work (see below), whereas the weak interpretation (the context is only needed to understand the meaning of words) is trivial. Thus, an intermediate interpretation needs to be adopted, namely that "the meaning of a subsentential expression is nothing but its contribution to the meaning of the sentence in which it occurs" (p. 80).

Next, Matilal and Sen discuss also Russell's On Denoting (another milestone of contemporary Philosophy of Language). I have to admit that I could not understand Matilal and Sen's treatment of it until I actually read Russell (but the fact of making a reader undertake further studies might be conceived as a further result of Matilal and Sen). Until Matilal and Sen, in fact, I had always thought of Russell's philosophy of language as correspondentist, whereas Matilal and Sen interpret Russell's strategy of reduction (through his "contextual definitions") as also (implicitly) presupposing some sort of Context principle.

A further step is the analysis of Frege. In fact, the Context principle seems to clash with the sense-reference distinction, outlined by Frege in his later work. Matilal and Sen use Michael Dummett's Frege: Philosophy of Language to claim that both theses can co-exist: words' meanings are outer referents, but "we cannot say anything, in the strict sense of the word 'say', without the use of whole sentences" (p. 80). After a short excursus on Kant's unity of thought, Michael Dummett's book is also quoted to discuss the distinction between the Context principle and the Composition principle. According to the latter, the meaning of a sentence is the result of the composition of the words forming it.

Does this sound familiar? If not, it means that you have not been working on the Kumarila-Prabhakara-Bhartrhari-Nyaya controversy on word- and sentence-meaning. In fact, as shown by Matilal and Sen in the second part of their work (pp. 84--97), the Indian scenario also revolves on similar issues. Bhartrhari is clearly an holist: for him the meaning of a sentence is a whole and word-meanings are only secondary abstractions. Kumarila and Prabhakara represent two different positions, possibly identifiable, respectively, with the weak and the intermediate interpretation of the Context principle.

This leads to a further problem, i.e., the link between linguistics and ontology. The topic is only hinted at at the end of Matilal and Sen's article, but it is, in my opinion, the most thought-provoking contribution of the article (together with the very idea of joining Frege and Kumarila side by side in a philosophical debate).

In fact, if words express their meanings only once already related in the context of a sentence, as upheld by the Prabhakaras, what consequences does this have for the Prabhakara ontology? If, for instance, "cow" in "Bring the cow!" does not mean  a separate cow, but a cow insofar as it is related to the injunction of being brought, does this entail that a "cow-connected-with-the-injunction-of bringing" exists out there? What sort of cow would this be? Surely an incomplete cow, one which is completed by the injunction of bringing. Should one admit —for the sake of maintaining the correspondentism between meanings and outer world— that there are "unsaturated entities" out there?

My personal answer is that ontology is less relevant than linguistics for the Prabhakaras (unlike for most Western philosophers and common folks) and that, as a matter of fact, this sort of correspondentism is already ruled out by the Prabhakara stress on exhortations as the paradigm of all sentences.

What do you think? Can there be linguistics without ontology?

On ontology and Mimamsa, see this post. On ontology in Indian philosophy in general, see this one.

As hinted at in the Introduction, this was not the first time I read Matilal and Sen's article. You can read a further post about it (focusing on the Prabhakara linguistic theory) here. On Frege's and the Prabhakara philosophy of language, check this post.

Ontology and linguistics
Reply to Elisa Freschi
Interesting... We get back to this. 

Ontology and linguistics
Reply to Elisa Freschi
I regret that I've just discovered this post:

Is Derrida's (admittedly 'Western') deconstruction and his other 'arguments' of the symbol-sign relation (ontologies?) relevant to this discussion? 

Ontology and linguistics
sorry for noticing this reply just now! Matilal and Sen are rigorously analytical philosophers. In this sense, I would not be able to connect Derrida's thoughts to theirs. Can you?