Philosophy of language in the Five Nikayas

by K.T.S. Sarao | 2013 | 141,449 words

This page relates ‘General Introduction to the Thesis’ of the study of the Philosophy of language in the Five Nikayas, from the perspective of linguistics. The Five Nikayas, in Theravada Buddhism, refers to the five books of the Sutta Pitaka (“Basket of Sutra”), which itself is the second division of the Pali Tipitaka of the Buddhist Canon (literature).

General Introduction to the Thesis

The research work, as its topic indicates, seeks to concentrate on studying, critically examining, discussing, and analysing the aspects of philosophy of language in the Five Nikāyas from the perspective of linguistics.

Linguistics and Philosophy of Language: An Overview

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Language, as its most specific level, may refer to the concrete act of speaking, writing or signing in a given situation. “Without language human civilization... would have remained an impossibility” (Varshney 2006:1). We all, in fact, know that language is a means of communication and self-expression. Further, language facilitates our conceptualising capacity. It reflects patterns of thought, and can be seen as a means of encoding and externalizing thought. The patterns of meaning in language represent a conventional means of encoding conceptual structure and organisation for purposes of communication. Different ways of expressing or encoding ideas in language represent different patterns of thought. For the Buddha, language has to serve a practical purpose in producing the required utility in the minds of the listeners.

Philosophy of language is usually presented as a deep-end subject. It was believed to occupy a central position in philosophy because it offered to deliver the ultimate route to metaphysical reality, or refutation of scepticism, and a solution to the problem of the other minds. The task of philosophy of language is the study of linguistic meaning. The Buddha considers the meaning to be directly linked to the training path, and any divergent view on the aspect of meaning to be not tolerable. For the Buddha, knowing of the meaning should enable the flashing of the knowing of the Dhamma. Thus, language, whatever way used, should produce the necessary meaning that matures into the realization of Dhamma.

The Five Nikāyas: A General View

The Tipiṭaka ‘Three Collections of the Buddhist Canon’ is a tremendous body of the Pāli Canonical literature: (i) the Vinayapiṭaka ‘Basket of Discipline’, (ii) the Suttapiṭaka ‘Basket of Sutra’, and (iii) the Abhidhammapiṭaka ‘Basket of Philosophical treatises of the Doctrine’.

The Suttapiṭaka contains prose dialogues, legends, pithy sayings, and verses, and covers a wide range of topics and issues concerning thought, cognition, meaning, reference, truth, reality, metaphor, metaphysics, pragmatics, semantics, logic, ontology, epistemology, mind, and so on, and the most important products of Buddhist literature chronologically grouped into five separate collections known as Five Nikāyas:

1. Dīgha Nikāya ‘Collection of Long Discourses’
2. Majjhima Nikāya ‘Collection of Middle-length Discourses’
3. Saṃyutta Nikāya ‘Collection of Kindred Sayings’
4. Aṅguttara Nikāya ‘Collection of Gradual Sayings’
5. Khuddaka Nikāya ‘Smaller Collections’

In the Suttapiṭaka we can find not just the fundamentals of the Buddha’s Teachings concerning all aspects of the human life and universe through the discourses, for instance, The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, Twelve Factors of Dependent Origination, The Thirty-Seven Factors of Enlightenment, The Threefold Formation, The Non-self, The Nibbāna and so on, but also pragmatic guidelines to make the Dhamma meaningful and applicable to the daily life. The Suttapiṭaka centres particularly on the basic principles of Buddhist thought and practice.

Objective of the Study

The research work on the one hand falls in the domain of Buddhist Studies, and on the other in the broader domain of the philosophy of language on the perspective of linguistics. The major objective of this research work, thus, was to examine and critically evaluate the principles and references of philosophy of language in the Five Nikāyas.

A critical study of this nature has to cut across a number of disciplines. Employing linguistic and philolinguistic tools, the research work has sought to examine and evaluate such problems and issues concerning the philosophy of language. The study has primarily set out the concept of philosophy of language founded on the viewpoints of linguistics and modern philosophy. On the basis of these, the research work has gone to present a detailed account of the references and contexts of philosophy of language in the text. The study has also attempted to examine, describe and analyze such aspects and issues of the philosophy of language as well as the philosophy of mind, perception and consciousness, language and meaning, language and cognition, language and thought, personal development and enlightenment vis-à-vis the position of the Five Nikāyas.

The Scope of the Thesis

The present research has focused on the critical study of the philosophy of language as reflected in the Five Nikāyas. It seeks to examine the nature of their relationship and to critically evaluate other direct and indirect premises, postulates in the Five Nikāyas. The study aims at examining the nature of philosophy of language and its relationship as well as language and meaning, and language and thought on the basis of a critical examination of the text. In the scope of this research, the thesis therefore brings under focus the notions of philosophy of language exhibited in the Five Nikāya. The survey is thus confined to the texts of these collections only.

The Sources of Study

The research study confines itself to the task of analyzing the subject in the light of textual sources. A critical appraisal of these issues has been based mainly on the English translated versions of the Five Nikāyas, particularly the English translated versions of Maurice Walshe, I.B. Horner, Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bhodhi (for detail, see the Primary Sources of the Selected Bibliography). Apart from the primary sources by the English versions, a large number of books and papers on relevant and concerned topics have vastly been consulted as secondary sources.

Research Method Adopted

The methodology used in this research work has largely involved a critical examination of the text for some important issues of philosophy of language. Thus, the research work has mostly followed the scientific method with a focus on (i) Inquiry of facts, and (ii) Reexamination (Re-open) of facts with regards to the philosophy of language. In general, all attempts have been made to maintain logically unity, mutual dependent, and community all through the course of this research study. Interpretations and inferences on the philosophy of language have thus primarily been drawn from the text and theoretically supported in light of other viable discussions.

Organization of the Thesis

The thesis has basically been divided into six chapters.

Chapter I: General Introduction to the Thesis

The first chapter has basically introduced the crucial definition of linguistics, and presented some main points on language, and philosophy of language. Next, the study has briefly introduced the historical background of the Buddhist Pāli Tipiṭaka in which the Five Nikāyas emerge as one of the three collections of the Buddhist Canon, namely Sutta Piṭaka compiled from the outset of the First Buddhist Council, and were the first Buddhist texts recorded earliest in the Pāli Buddhist literature. An attempt has been made to fully present the Five Nikāyas with their outlines and primary contents in detail respectively. The chapter has particularly provided the necessary accounts to introduce the objective and significance of the study. And sources, scope, and methodology of research have respectively been dealt with in detail. Finally, the study has made the chapterization for the thesis with totally six chapters and summarized contents have been displayed.

Chapter II: The Concept of Philosophy of Language

The second chapter deals with the prerequisite theoretical background of the philosophy of language primarily drawn from the linguistic literature. All attempts have been made to deal with, examine, discuss and analyze in great detail the major concepts and universal principles of philosophy of language, and especially of the close relationship between them. The principal notions have been fairly given and discussed in detail from the viewpoint of linguistics. In doing so, the chapter has gone through eleven major sections.

Firstly, the chapter has focused on studying the philosophical questions and three mains areas of philosophy; rather, on language and its concerns. The study has showed that mind is the store that underlies our thoughts and sentiments; it is a system of mental organs. The chapter has further taken a general discussion on mind which is considered all mental phenomena and is defined as thinks and experiences. The truth and meaning and the truthconditional theses, logical form as well as semantics and truth have in turn been presented and discussed. The chapter has specially discussed the sense and reference which are the relation between names or signs of objects.

Chapter 3: Language and Meaning As Reflected in the Five Nikāyas

The central study of philosophy of language is meaning. This chapter has therefore sought to present the critical background and review of the reference of language and meaning in the Five Nikāyas. The chapter has brought out ten major sections. All attempts have been made to present and discuss the language and meaning and their concerns, particularly the theorems which specify the meanings of each sentence in that language in a way that displays how these meanings depend on the meanings of its parts, or the meaning of a word is determined by its use; or the combination of words is determined by the set of rules which regulate their use. Specially, the principle of compositionality states that the meaning of a sentence is determined by the meanings of the words that constitute it and by the way those words are put together, by the syntactic structure of the sentence. The chapter has rather discussed the different points of view of philosophical theories of meaning, and of semantics. This chapter has further mentioned and discussed sense as a criterion of identification of a reference. Having applied all theoretical background brought out and discussed in the previous chapter, this chapter has studied the context, and some important Buddhist terms/doctrines in the Five Nikāyas, such as Dhamma, Nibbāna, The Four Noble Truths, The Thirty-Seven Factors of Enlightenment, The Four Planes of Liberation, The Four Jhānas and the Four Arūpajjhānas, The Attainment of the Cessation of Perception and Feeling, The Faith and The Truth, and so on. The chapter has emphasized the Buddha’s teaching that “He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma” (SN, SNo. 87).

Chapter 4: Philosophy of Language in the Five Nikāyas

The fourth chapter, a kernel of this research work, is a comprehensive study of philosophy of language in the Five Nikāyas based on the linguistic and philosophical theoretical background. With its intense and critical appraisal the chapter has essentially presented in detail all the fourteen sections. All these issues have been systematically and critically examined, analyzed and discussed, and a special attention has been given many other aspects that come to acquire the focal attention in the study.

The study of beyond language has pointed out that the non-verbal communication is a notable point as the Buddha says “I am one who speaks after making an analysis; I do not speak one-sidedly” The chapter has taken a study on the reflection of mind on language behaviours in which the Nikāyas present a fairly elaborate distinction between mind (citta) and consciousness (viññāna). While ‘consciousness’ represents the field of sense and sensereaction, ‘mind’ is defined as the cognitive ground underlying the dynamic system of psychological operations. As shown in the Dependent Origination, ‘formation’ (sankhāra) is the cause and condition for which consciousness arises. And in the five aggregates (pañcakkhandha) there is a much closed conjunction between consciousness and mental factors. This means that the quality of a primary mind or consciousness depends upon the mental factors that accompany with it, and the relationship between them is the reciprocal relationship. The chapter has further tried to point out the Buddha’s instruction of the verbal conduct which concerns to the terms of phonetics and dialect and sociolect. The chapter has set up the relationship between language and knowledge in which “language is a code that represents our hidden inner thoughts” (Chomsky 1968). paññā ‘wisdom’ which plays a key role is a primary condition enabling one to penetrate the ultimate reality, ie., Nibbāna. When one possesses wisdom, one can truly see and know the real essence of things (dhamma) and thus capable of leading to the complete destruction of suffering. And the right view (sammādiṭṭhi) and the right intention (sammāsankappa), first two factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, are ways to grasp the noble wisdom. The chapter has specially dealt with and studied the Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda). This doctrine affirms that all phenomena or events in both mental and physical arise in dependence on causes and conditions and lack intrinsic being. The ultimate purpose of the teaching on the Dependent Origination is to reveal the conditions and thereby to show what must be done to gain release from the round. This doctrine is so important that the Buddha said: “One who sees Dependent Origination sees the Dharnma, and one who sees the Dhamma sees Dependent Origination” And “one who can see those things, see the Tathāgata.” The Nikāyas use the five aggregates to analyze human experience. In the Nikāyas the characteristics of non-self that points out that (i) all sankhāras are impermanent; (ii) all sankhāras are unsatisfactory, and (iii) all dhammas are without self, and in this sense including Nibbāna. The study has moreover discussed the Buddhist contemplative science of meditation, such as Samatha and Vipassanā, and The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The important feature of this chapter is a study on description of mind in which the Nikāyas demonstrate that “when the mind is undefiled, a happy destination may be expected.” Parallel to the training of mind is the cultivation and development of language behaviour which can be seen as an outstanding reproduction of mind. In sum, the central task of the philosopher of language is to explain what meaning is. The Buddha underlined the importance of meaning that holds most cherished position after the Dhamma.

Chapter 5: Language and Thought

The main purpose of this chapter is to present a concise statement on the relationship of language and thought from a vast panoramic perspective of linguistics and many other concerned fields such as philosophy, psychology, and Buddhist literature. All scientific studies show that language is not an isolated system; it depends heavily on other cognitive processes. So “thought is the objective content that we grasp when thinking” (Frege 1982b), and “thoughts are not psychological entities since they exist independently of our ability to think them” (Tanesini 2007). Further, thoughts are public so that different individuals can literally have the same thought, rather than having thoughts which are only exactly alike. Moreover, in order to have thought, a creature must be a member of language community, and an interpreter of the speech of others. The chapter has sought to deal with and discuss the relationship between the body and the mind which are aspects of a person. And the mind can’t exist without the body, since it dies when the body dies. According the cognitivists, the sciences of the human mind cannot afford to avoid referring to internal psychological states and processes that seem to mediate between the stimuli form the environment and behaviour. Whorf (1956) considered “thinking as largely a matter of language and inescapably bound up with systems of linguistic expression.” In other words, “all higher levels of thinking are dependent upon language,” and different languages are assumed to lead to different world view. Linguistics Relativity Hypothesis shows that language shapes thought patterns. As its specific function, the chapter has further discussed language, thought and language of thought in which for ontological priority, there cannot be thought without language, and it is not possible to find out in detail what a person believes without interpreting that person’s speech. The chapter has also tried to crucially discuss the metaphor and the metonymy in which a metaphor is principally a way of conceiving of one thing in terms of another, and its primary function is understanding. Metonymy, on the other, allows us to use one entity to stand for another. In the Nikāyas, the metaphor, metonymy, and specially simile were used in most of Suttas, such as “The Simile of the Cloth” (MN, SNo. 7), “The Simile of the Saw” (MN, SNo. 21), “The Simile of the Snake” (MN, SNo. 22), and so on. The chapter has furthermore taken an evasive attempt to discuss the position of Buddhism on language and thought. The Buddhist theory admits only objects as moments in which the first moment is always a moment of sensation, and the first moment of awareness is what constitutes the source of right knowledge, the source of uncontradicted experience.

Chapter 6: Summary and Conclusions

The conclusion chapter has drawn out from the discussions presented in the previous chapters or emerging from their comprehensive examination of the Five Nikāyas on the philosophy of language. In order to particularly recapitulate the conclusions, this chapter has attempted to summarize all the main features that have been dealt with, studied, analyzed, criticized, and explained in detail throughout the thesis. This chapter also offers some suggestions for the larger implication of the study of philosophy of language in the Five Nikāyas. Finally, this chapter takes an opportunity to highlight the contributions, and the findings during studying to the Buddhist philosophy in particular, and the contemporary philosophy of language in general.

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