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Language and thought in Indian culture


– Sergiu Al-George (1922-1981)

Western culture today seems to have reached a deadlock in its efforts of grasping the relations between logic, linguistics and semiotics. However, the link between thought and language can be better understood by means of these three positive sciences. A survey of some Indian conceptual achievements in the aforesaid fields will enable us to glimpse the possibility of conceiving a different shape of these branches of knowledge, due to their different historical interdependence and theoretical filiations. But the legitimacy of any theoretical filiation – as transference of formal categories from one field to another – will depend on the respective sciences being hierarchically subordinated to one another. Semiotics, the most general of them, monitors linguistics; as for logic – concerned with some linguistic relations only – it requires a perfect accuracy of linguistic analysis.

In Europe, ever since Aristotle and his logical system, there has been a successive and implicitly dependent development from logic, to grammar and finally to semiotics. Not without difficulty, the direction has been from the knowledge of the least general structures towards the most general ones. But the track followed by Indian speculation has been an easier and more natural one. The theory started with metasemiotical exegesis of rite, wherefrom grammar originated, and later the logical texts reaped the benefits of a complete and full-fledged analysis of language. Indian logic is in fact an epistemology moulded on semiotics and in its most advanced stage it develops semantical theories closely connected with it.

In Pāṇini’s work, problems of semiotics are of an even more comprehensive generality than that conceived by the logicians. Parallel with Pāṇini, and perhaps even earlier, Indian phoneticians used to give a semiotical interpretation to the structure of the syllable. Thus, in contradistinction to what happened in Europe, grammar preceded logic in India, and both operated with the comprehensive generality of the sign.

What has been thought in India, in matters of linguistics, logic and semiotics, is not only of a historical and academic interest. That the Indian contribution to these topics is something alive and stimulating, is proved by the entire evolution of linguistics. The emergence of linguistics as a science in Europe, at the beginning of the 19th century, was mostly due to the discovery of Pāṇini’s system, as it has been unanimously acknowledged. Later on, the development of the science of language went hand in hand with the blossoming of Pāṇinian studies. We are witnessing a step-by-step restoration of Pāṇini’s thinking in Western culture, as scholars dig deeper into the science of language. European linguistics began with the discovery of Pāṇini’s elements of phonetics and morphology; now, that the influence of Pāṇini’s syntax – formerly ignored and even denied – is thoroughly confirmed by the most recent theories concerning semantico-syntactical functions. Aristotle’s time-honoured subject/ predicate dogma is strongly shaken and may be thus totally overthrown.

The restoration of Pāṇini’s thought in a merely linguistic framework, such as has been undertaken until now, is obstructing a clear perception of his logical and semiotical contribution.

Indian semiotics remains however an unexplored field. Even Indian logic – which boldly declares itself a “science of the sign” (hetuvidya) – has not yet been approached under its semiotical aspect, as scholars are busily engaged in delimiting it against Western logic or in formalizing it. Contemporary Western semiotics, torn between antagonistic opinions and lost in intricacies which debase the philosophical prestige of the sign, could be revigorated – even if not as vastly as linguistics was once – by knowing Indian semiotics. The present deadlock could thus be broken by abandoning Western cultural subjectivity and a certain limited horizon, and establishing a cultural intercourse with another part of the world, where similar problems have been approached and solved differently – in a more astute and more carefully pondered way, perhaps.