Meanings and Historical Context: the arguments from Indian scholars –S.N.Balagangadhara

1.  Consider the thought that ‘meanings’ (leave aside the distinction between words and sentences on the one hand and concepts and categories on the other) do not exist outside historical contexts. What exactly does this thought say? Begin with ‘historical context’. Either every situation that an individual human being finds himself is a ‘historical context’ (because human beings are always ‘in a context’ and these contexts always occur ‘in history’) or there is a difference between ‘ a context’ and a ‘historical context’.  She cannot possibly make the latter of the two claims because if the meaning of ‘secularism’ changes only in ‘historical contexts’ but not in ‘other kinds of contexts’, it follows that ‘secularism’ has a stable meaning in other contexts than  ‘historical contexts’, which she would want to deny. So, for the sake of consistency, we have to assume that ‘context’ and ‘historical context’ are synonyms. Then, the thought is that meaning varies according to contexts. Consider the word ‘ice-cream’: the only way I can imagine that the meaning of this word varies according to individual contexts is the following: to one, it means a ‘life saver’; to the other ‘fattening’ and to the third ‘sweet’ and so on. (In fact, to one and the same individual ‘ice cream’ could “mean different things” at different points in time: what ice-cream meant  when one was 3 years need indeed not be the same as what it means when one is 50 and suffers from Diabetes and obesity.) So far so good. But the problem is this: these different meanings of ‘ice-cream’ presuppose that we are talking about the same thing. Only under this condition can we say that ‘ice-cream’ means different things to different people (or to the same person at different times).  To talk about the same thing, ice-cream, we need a reference for that word and, in many cases (like secularism and communalism, for example) it is a ‘linguistic description’ of that word (a ‘definition’, or its ‘meaning’) that provides us with reference. (In the case of ice-cream, one might use gestures to point out an ice-cream; you cannot do that for ‘secularism’ and ‘communalism’.) In other words, the ONLY possible way for secularism to have multiple meanings in multiple historical contexts is by having a meaning that is INDEPENDENT of contexts. (Or having a meaning that is common across all POSSIBLE contexts.) In other words, when Neera or Shabnum or anyone else makes the claim that meanings do not transcend contexts either (a) they are making the trivial point that every word uttered by any human being always takes place in a context (which no one had ever denied) or (b) by saying that meaning is totally context bound they are contradicting themselves. Of course, to notice that one is inconsistent, one needs to think according to the rules of grammar and rules of logic.

2. On the one hand, she says that ‘meanings’ are particular to their historical contexts and, yet, denies it at the same time: she finds that ‘infusing the category with new meaning is inadequate’. Now, if the meaning of secularism is particular to a context, it follows that ‘new meanings’ (as compared to the old ‘meanings’: how, I wonder, does she ‘compare’ the meanings or even how she can discover that some meaning is ‘new’ and some other is ‘old’?) are infused in ‘new historical contexts’. If historical contexts are those that provide meanings, how, then, can she say, that a ‘new meaning’ that a ‘new historical context’ provides is “inadequate”? (How will she judge the adequacy or the inadequacy of meaning of secularism, if its meaning is particular to a historical context?) She must have a trans-historical context to say that some meaning of ‘secularism’ is inadequate.

3.  And then, her argument is that the ‘premise’ that meanings are independent of particular historical contexts is false. Let us assume that she is right. But what follows from noticing the falsity of a premise in a chain of argument? It merely tells us that, purely on logical grounds, the conclusion cannot be true. But, could the conclusion be true in any other way than be logically true? Of course, it can: it could be true purely as a contingent matter, i.e., it could be factually true (for example, ‘New York is a city in the US’) without being logically true (there is no logical mistake if the city had a different name or would get a new name). In other words, even if Shabnum were right, there is not much she can say about the truth of the factual claims made about secularism and communalism in India.

The problem with Shabnum Tejani s and Neera Chandhokes of this world boils down to this: they talk but do not think.