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Debating the centre : the theory of principal qualificand (mukhyavisesya) in classical Indian philosophy

Faculté des lettres Université de Lausanne UNIL - Dorigny Anthropole - bureau 2049 CH-1015 Lausanne SUISSE: Université de Lausanne, Faculté des lettres
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  • Linguistics
  • Philosophy
  • Religious Science


The theory of language has occupied a special place in the history of Indian thought. Indian philosophers give particular attention to the analysis of the cognition obtained from language, known under the generic name of śābdabodha. This term is used to denote, among other things, the cognition episode of the hearer, the content of which is described in the form of a paraphrase of a sentence represented as a hierarchical structure. Philosophers submit the meaning of the component items of a sentence and their relationship to a thorough examination, and represent the content of the resulting cognition as a paraphrase centred on a meaning element, that is taken as principal qualificand (mukhyaviśesya) which is qualified by the other meaning elements. This analysis is the object of continuous debate over a period of more than a thousand years between the philosophers of the schools of Mimāmsā, Nyāya (mainly in its Navya form) and Vyākarana. While these philosophers are in complete agreement on the idea that the cognition of sentence meaning has a hierarchical structure and share the concept of a single principal qualificand (qualified by other meaning elements), they strongly disagree on the question which meaning element has this role and by which morphological item it is expressed. This disagreement is the central point of their debate and gives rise to competing versions of this theory. The Mïmāmsakas argue that the principal qualificand is what they call bhāvanā ̒bringing into being̒, ̒efficient force̒ or ̒productive operation̒, expressed by the verbal affix, and distinct from the specific procedures signified by the verbal root; the Naiyāyikas generally take it to be the meaning of the word with the first case ending, while the Vaiyākaranas take it to be the operation expressed by the verbal root. All the participants rely on the Pāninian grammar, insofar as the Mimāmsakas and Naiyāyikas do not compose a new grammar of Sanskrit, but use different interpretive strategies in order to justify their views, that are often in overt contradiction with the interpretation of the Pāninian rules accepted by the Vaiyākaranas. In each of the three positions, weakness in one area is compensated by strength in another, and the cumulative force of the total argumentation shows that no position can be declared as correct or overall superior to the others. This book is an attempt to understand this debate, and to show that, to make full sense of the irreconcilable positions of the three schools, one must go beyond linguistic factors and consider the very beginnings of each school's concern with the issue under scrutiny. The texts, and particularly the late texts of each school present very complex versions of the theory, yet the key to understanding why these positions remain irreconcilable seems to lie elsewhere, this in spite of extensive argumentation involving a great deal of linguistic and logical technicalities. Historically, this theory arises in Mimāmsā (with Sabara and Kumārila), then in Nyāya (with Udayana), in a doctrinal and theological context, as a byproduct of the debate over Vedic authority. The Navya-Vaiyākaranas enter this debate last (with Bhattoji Dïksita and Kaunda Bhatta), with the declared aim of refuting the arguments of the Mïmāmsakas and Naiyāyikas by bringing to light the shortcomings in their understanding of Pāninian grammar. The central argument has focused on the capacity of the initial contexts, with the network of issues to which the principal qualificand theory is connected, to render intelligible the presuppositions and aims behind the complex linguistic justification of the classical and late stages of this debate. Reading the debate in this light not only reveals the rationality and internal coherence of each position beyond the linguistic arguments, but makes it possible to understand why the thinkers of the three schools have continued to hold on to three mutually exclusive positions. They are defending not only their version of the principal qualificand theory, but (though not openly acknowledged) the entire network of arguments, linguistic and/or extra-linguistic, to which this theory is connected, as well as the presuppositions and aims underlying these arguments.

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