Fuss about Indic categories(concepts) I

Let me give the gist of the consensus and overlook philosophical nuances about categories.

1. Consider the following sentences: ‘It is raining’, ‘het regent’, ‘Es Regnet’, ‘Baarish aa raha hai’. All these sentences have the same meaning, namely that it is raining. Or it could also be said that they all express the same “proposition”. So, “meaning” and “proposition” are used as quasi-synonyms; and sentences from natural languages have meaning or express propositions. Another synonym to “meaning” would be the “sense” of a sentence.

2. And then we have words from different languages. ‘Rain’, ‘regen’, “baarish”. They have meaning. This meaning can also be called “sense”, “concept”, “category” or even “idea”. These are virtual synonyms: words have sense or meaning, or they express concepts, or they instantiate categories or they are ideas.

3. The difference that we notice in how we use these words (“words instance a category or express meaning or proposition”) are more indications of philosophical commitments: do propositions exist? Is meaning a property of sentences? And such like. Some of these issues are about ontology.

4. Ontology refers to what we take to exist in the world. Does the world include physical objects, propositions, mathematical numbers, Infinity, mathematical sets? etc. Or does it consist only of physical objects? Do properties like ‘blue’ exist or do only blue-colored objects exist? And so on. A “category mistake” is a mistake in one’s ontology: one wrongly attributes properties that belong to objects in one domain to objects in another domain. My favorite example is borrowed from Chomsky: “Do Green ideas sleep furiously?” is an example of a category mistake. In our ontology (that is, what we take to exist in the world), ideas have no color, they do not sleep, and sleeping cannot be qualified with the adjective ‘furious’. However, the question is syntactically well-formed but it is semantic nonsense because it commits a category mistake.

Not every category mistake is nonsense. Many jokes are humorous precisely because they commit a category mistake.

5. To speak of ‘western’ and ‘Indic’ categories is to claim that there is something western or Indic to the meaning of words. That is, by looking at the meaning of a word, it should be possible for us to say that it is ‘Indic’ or ‘western’. (Consider the meaning of the word ‘Baarish’. Is it ‘Indic’ or Western’? Exactly the same point holds for the meaning of words like ‘Deva’ or ‘Dharma’.) It is one thing to say that the meaning of a Sanskrit word cannot be translated to mean some or another English word (or the other way round). This is a typical problem of translatability (of meaning) across any two languages.

However, it is quite simply impossible to say that some or another ‘idea’, or ‘concept’, or ‘category’ is Indic or Western. Of course, one could say some such thing: but it is impossible to say what makes some idea carry a culture on its shirt sleeves, so to speak. What properties of an idea transform it into a culture-specific idea? Note that ‘idea’, ‘category’, ‘concept’, ‘meaning’, etc. are seen to be only semantic in nature. That is, they have only semantic properties (‘semantic’ means ‘meaning-related’).

Anumana, pratyksha, etc. are not Indic categories; they are Sanskrit words. Either ‘anumana’ (for example) belongs to the category instanced by the English word ‘inference’ or the Dutch word ‘afleiden’ or it is an instance of a different category. However, one cannot make a philosophical point on this basis.One could use ‘Indic categories’ and ‘western categories’ as short-hand for something like this: most Indians or westerners (as the case may be) understand the meaning of some words because it is a part of their natural language-use. Most Indians, for instance, ‘intuitively’ understand the word ‘Dharma’ (even if most of them cannot explicate its nuances). So, one might want to say, it is an ‘Indic’ category.

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