The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 8, 2003

Origin & evolution of language
Gobind Thukral

Signification in Language and Culture
edited by Harjeet Singh Gill. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.
Pages xi+675. Rs 950.

Signification in Language and CultureSIGNIFICATION in Language and Culture is an anthology of papers presented at the international symposium on Signification in Buddhist and French Traditions (with its impact on later developments in India and Europe) held at the Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, in September 2001. In the Introductory Note, the editor, Harjeet Singh Gill, Professor Emeritus of Semiotics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Fellow at the Institute presents the main theme of the symposium.

In the sixth and the seventh centuries AD, Buddhist logicians Dignaga and Dharmakirti, proposed a theory of signification and creativity, called apoha, which dealt with the complexities of a linguistic and ontological universe in terms of dialectical and dichotomising relations between all related but distinct entities of human discourses. All comprehension is dialectical and relational.

There is no immediate contact between the spirit and the world; signification and consequently, language is the interface. The fundamental question for linguistics and other philosophers has been from where did the language come? How did it originate and to what consequences ? The origin of language is as obscure as the origin of history. Language is the essence of humanity. Ordinary people do not realise the signification of nouns and verbs and their impact on ideas and ideologies. How important is language and what are its cultural roots . In this context, a thought-provoking paper included in this anthology, "Nagarjuna, Heracletius and the Problem of Language," by Oxford don, Professor Roy Harris makes an important contribution towards not only a better understanding of the French and Buddhist traditions, but also towards a greater comprehension of Language itself. Harris, founder of the integrationist school of thought, who delivered four thought-provoking lectures in 2002 on the signification of language, wherein he asserted that there can never be any standard English language.


The western tradition has a corresponding theory of signification and creativity propounded by the twelfth century French philosopher, Pierre Abelard. Like the Buddhist logicians, Abelard was also negotiating a theoretical space between the extreme realism the extreme nominalism. The discursive formation of the creative discourse is never a factual reporting of an event, whether it is physical, mental or ideological. It is a conceptual construct and as such it always represents a certain perception of the contours of our mental universe.

The 36 papers in this volume attempt to explore these propositions in different philosophical traditions of East and West. Roy Harris of Oxford discusses Nagarjuna, Heracleitus and the problem of language. The article that follows it on Abelard the meaning of the proposition by Irene Rosier of the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris. Francois Rastier of the Sorbonne, Paris, discusses the theoretical relationship between the ancient Indian grammarians and the propositions of Saussure, the father of modern structuralism. This is the only paper in French in the anthology but it is preceded by long abstract in English by the editor. Barbar Cassin of CNRS, Paris, deals with the Greek tradition and its ramifications in modern western logicians. It is followed by a long dessertation by Laurent Cesalli of the University of Geneva on the fourteenth century realist theories of proposition. F.G. Asenjo of the University of Pittsburgh reviews the notion of a point of view as a linguistic variable. Being a mathematician he dwells on the various intricacies of logical propositions, very much like the Buddhist logicians to whom he refers very often. Michael Dusche of the University of Tubingen presents his reflections on signification in opaque contests.

Then there is an article by Pradeep Dhillon of the University of Illinois on "Seeing the Truth: Cosmopolitan Philosophy with Universal Intent." H.S. Gill deals at length on conceptualism in Buddhist and French traditions.

This book may not be intended for lay readers, but those who have some interest in how language evolves, what signification it has and how it shapes power relations could certainly benefit from it.