Philosophy of language in the Five Nikayas

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

This page relates ‘Preliminary’ 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).

1. Preliminary

Linguistics is the scientific study of language; also called linguistic science. Language, as its most specific level, may refer to the concrete act of speaking, writing or signing in a given situation; that is, the notion of Parole, or Performance. Adopting the Descartes’ observation on language, Varshney (2006:1) states that “language is the ‘species-specific’ and ‘species-uniform’ possession of man. Without language human civilization... would have remained an impossibility. Language is not only ubiquitous -in our thoughts and dreams, prayers and meditations, relations and communications, and rituals, but also a very complex human phenomenon.” In his (1968) Language and Mind, Chomsky observed that “When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call ‘human essence’, the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to human. … Language mirrors human mental processes or shapes the flow and character of thought.” The fact that language as a system is by far the most suited fundamental basis of human communication and, though it is a biological behaviour unique to humans, has motivated scientists, philosophers and thinkers alike to ponder upon the nature of language and its inquiry. As pointed out by Chomsky (1968:18) “the study of language had arrived at a situation in which there was, on the one hand, a set of simple concepts that provided the basis for some startling successes and, on the other, some deep but rather vague ideas that did not seem to lead to any further productive research.”

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 skepticism, and a solution to the problem of the other minds. Instead of serving other philosophical projects, the philosophy of language now focuses on its primary concern: the nature of natural language and the extraordinary capacity of human beings to use it to express and communicate their thoughts about the world and the other subject-matters. The way language works, how specific linguistic devices function to achieve their effects, how we come to know these properties of expressions, and how we exploit them in our talk: all this is pursued by contemporary philosophers of language. Philosophy of language focuses further on more abstract questions of language itself, including how sentences mean what they do, how names refer to individuals or natural kinks, how we can talk about non-existent things, and whether/how two sentences can mean the same thing.

There has recently been a rapprochement between philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, with many of the interesting questions targeting the links between language and mind. Through its connections with other branches of philosophy and work in neighboring disciplines, philosophy of language, as Lepore & Smith (2006) observed, has enjoyed something of a resurgence recently, with a stronger sense of the issues worth pursuing, a sense that progress can be made, a keener focus on the topics of central concern to the study of language, and a need for such work to be informed by empirical results in linguistics and psychology. As mentioned above, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind have a rapprochement. Studying on philosophy of language, therefore, we cannot but study on mind. Mind as a broader term on the one hand refers to the domain of mental activities, and memory of a person on the other, it includes both conscious thoughts and unconscious activity. Mind, according to some scholars such as J. Perry, is considered to refer to mental phenomena such as sensation, perception, thought, belief, desire, intention, memory, emotion, imagination, and purposeful action. Thus, philosophies of language and mind have enjoyed a fruitful liaison, as much of the technical apparatus of the philosophy of language has been used to illuminate the mind.

Three months after the Parinibbāna ‘Eternal peace’ of the Buddha, the great disciples recited together all the Teachings of their Master. They attempted to compile the Buddha’s Teachings systematically and carefully, and then classified them under different heads into specialised sections. The general discourses and sermons delivered by the Buddha to both the Sangha and the lay disciples on various occasions for forty-nine years are collected and classified in a great division known as Suttapiṭaka ‘Basket of Sutras’.

In the present section of this chapter, as mentioned above, I have basically introduced the definition of linguistics and pointed out some main points on language, and specially, the philosophy of language and its relation; that is, philosophy of mind. In second section I will then take an attempt to briefly introduce 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 presented from the outset of the First Buddhist Council, and were the first Buddhist texts recorded earliest in Pāli Buddhist literature. For this, an overview on the Buddhist Councils will generally be taken as providing the historical evidence of establishing the Tipiṭaka. Further, I will seek to fully present the Five Nikāyas, and to list the names of Suttas in detail respectively, and their outlines as well as their primary contents. Moreover, in the third section I will also particularly provide the necessary accounts to introduce the objective and significance of the study. And sources of research will be dealt with in detail in section four. Sections five and six will present the scope and methodology of research respectively. The seventh section is the organization of the thesis. And finally, a summary will be taken to conclude this chapter.

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