Conceptualism in Buddhist and French Traditions

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Item Code: NAC366
Author: Harjeet Singh Gill
Publisher: Publication Bureau Punjabi University, Patiala
Language: English
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 8130201321
Pages: 211
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.8 Inch X 7.5 Inch
Weight 690 gm
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The natural versus social origin of language controversy perpetuated two distinct traditions of linguistic reflection in India. Bhartrhari stated in no uncertain terms that the correspondence between the word and what it designates is fixed for all times and no human intervention can change this relationship. Panini’s great treatise, astadhyaya, and Bhartrhari’s sphota continued to be the main tradition of formal linguistics in Inida. The Buddhist proposition of language as social phenomenon where it is the human, conscious perception that determines its various modes and realizations of conceptual constructs became the basis of all speculation on language as generator of significations. Dignaga and Dharmakriti were its foremost logicians.

In Europe, the English reflections on language beginning with twelfth century philosopher Pierre Abelard, steered clear of both Platonic realism and Aristotelian nominalism and proposed a theory of language, called conceptualism, in terms of position huminum, voluntas hominium, language being a human institution, created by the human will. Since then the French intellectual tradition remains equidistant from Anglo-saxon empiricism and German idealism.

This monograph proposes a typological comparison between these two traditions to see how the insights derived from this study are valid for all reflections on the constitution of the universe of semiology and signification.


In Conceptualism in Buddhist and French Traditions Professor Harjeet Singh Gill has presented a typological comparison between the two most significant intellectual traditions of India and Europe. Beginning with the twelfth century French philosopher, Pierre Abelard, the French philosophical reflections have always been equidistant from Anglo-saxon empiricism and German idealism. In India the main preoccupation was the study of formal structure of language initiated by the great grammarian, Panini. The conceptual framework of the Buddhist logicians, Dharmakirti and Dignaga, however, continues to be the focus of all meditations on signification. The insights derived from these two traditions is the theoretical basis of Punjabi Kosh —A Conceptual Dictionary of Punjabi Language and Culture that Professor Gill was invited to edit in October 2006.


When I was invited by Professor Claude Hagége to deliver a series of lectures at the College de France in 1998 1 proposed a typological comparison between the two most significant traditions in the history of ideas — the Buddhist and the French. The controversy between the Panian and Bhartrhari’s interpretation of language as a natural phenomenon as opposed to the Buddhist approach to language as a social and human institution led to two distinct traditions in India. Bhartrhari stated in no uncertain terms that the correspondence between the words and what is designated by them is natural and fixed and no human intervention can change this relationship. For the Buddhist logicians, this relation was dialectical and dichotomising based on the specific conceptualistions due to human imposition. The Buddhist logicians, Dignaga and Dharmakirti were the foremost thinkers in this tradition of conceptualism. Much later, from the twelfth century onwards, with Pierre Abelard, the French meditations on this very crucial issue of signification was also called conceptualism by various scholars. Abelard asserted that the significance of words was derived from human imposition, due to human perception and human will posito hominum, voluntas hominum... The comparison here is obviously typological and not historical. There is a marked similarity between the two theoretical reflections but certainly no identity is either proposed or considered in my analysis. Abelardian conceptualism continued to become the distinctive feature of the French tradition with Condillac in the eighteenth century and Merleau-Ponty in the twentieth, that distinguishes it clearly from Anglo-saxon empiricism and German idealism. In India, the linguistic tradition of Panini remained preoccupied with the formal structures of language. The Buddhist tradition of Dharmakirti and Dignaga is the primary focus for all conceptual reflections... This typological comparison was also the main theme of a seminar at the Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla that I organized as a Fellow of the Institute in September 2002.

The insights derived from the study of these two traditions are the basis of Punjabi Kosh – A Conceptual Dictionary of Punjabi University, Patiala. After my studies in the United States and France I joined this university as a Professor of Linguistics in 1968. In 1984 I was called to the Chair in Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. And now after twenty years I am back in Patiala. I feel highly obliged and honoured to be able to publish a major theoretical work at this university. My grateful thanks are due to the distinguished Vice-Chancellor of Punjabi University, Padam Shri S.S. Bopari for the award of Senior Fellowship to complete this monograph and to Dr Dhanwant Kaur for the administrative support…HSG.


The Indian mediaeval logic is filled up with a struggle between Realism and Nominalism, just as the middle Ages in Europe... There is an unmistakable parallelism between the European struggle and the Indian controversy. Its general lines are similar, but not its details... It can be mentioned that Abelard in his attempt at mediation between extreme Nominalism and extreme Realism expressed views which are partially found in India. He held that the Universal is more than a name; it is a predicate (sermo), even a natural predicate. We have seen that the universal as a general concept is always the predicate of a perceptual judgment; hence all universals are nothing but predicates. F. Th. Stcherbatsky in Buddhist Logic, Leningrad, 1930, pp.452-453.

The advent of Dignaga is indeed one of the greatest events in the history of Indian philosophy. He can as a matter of right claim a place among those pioneers of human thought who discovered an eternal truth and made a lasting contribution to human knowledge... Sometime during the fifth century AD, there appeared in the firmament of Indian philosophy a brilliant star in the person of Dignaga, the founder of Buddhist logic and epistemology. Regarded by the Tibetans as an ornament of Jambudvipa, he was one of the greatest thinkers that India has ever produced. Subsequent philosophical thought in India was dominated by him directly or indirectly for six long centuries. He revolutionised Indian philosophy by introducing into it the theory of radical distinction between two mutually exclusive sources of knowledge - direct sense-perception, grahana, and intellect or thought, vikalpa or adhyasaya (D. N. Shastri in Critique of Indian Realism, Agra University, 1964. pp.1- 5).

Abelard’s treatment of the problem of universals was really decisive, in the sense that it gave a death-blow to ultra- realism by showing how one could deny the latter doctrine without at the same time being obliged to deny all objectivity to genera and species. . . The foundation of the Thomist doctrine of moderate realism had thus been laid before the thirteenth century, and indeed we may say that it was Abelard who really killed ultra-realism. When St Thomas declares that universals are not subsistent things but exist only in singular things, he is re-echoing what Abelard and John of Salisbury (a student of Abelard) had said before him (Frederick Copleston in A History of Philosophy. Bums and Oates, Kent, 1950, Vol 2, pp.’ 46- 151.

The close connection between thought and language inherited from Dignaga differentiates Dharmakirti from empiricists such as Locke and others, who believe in what we described, following Sellars, as the Myth of the given. Locke, for example, holds that concepts and words are linked through association. The word tree gets connected with the idea free, which is nothing but the mental image of a tree, by the association established by repeated use. For Locke, the representation of the tree is not formed through language but is given to sensation... (Dharmakirti’s perception)...

Dharmakirti’s philosophy is different, for it emphasizes the constitutive and constructive nature of language... Dharmakirti emphasizes that universals are not real; they are the products of the mind. They are elaborated on the basis of the resemblances we perceive. He also holds a view of perception, that is, sensation, not unlike that of the empiricists. For Dharmakirti, perception holds its object and hence provides an undistorted view of reality. There is. however, a crucial difference, which is that for Dharmakirti perception does not identify its object but merely holds the object in its perceptual ken. Hence, perception does not provide any cognitive content by itself but merely inducts conceptual activities through which content is constructed, (Georges B. J. Dreyfus in Recognising Reality’, Dharmakirti‘s philosophy and its Tibetan interpretation’s, State University of New York Press, 1997, p.219).

Dharmakirti responds by emphasizing the mistaken endure of conceptuality: “When this [reflection] is signified by a word, an objective factor is understood. If it is not understood, there is not point in naming [anything]. [If one objects]: ‘How [can] a statement signify an objective factor?’ We answer [through] the elimination of others. Since the aspect does not exist in the object, how could it have any role in signifying an object? A statement has [as its] effect [the obtainment of] connected [things] through [a relation to] those connected things. The [aspect], however, has no such connection, for it is not distinct from the mental episode being the manifestation of the habituation to seeing [objects].” The purpose of language is not only communicative but also cognitive and constructive. That is, we use words not only to communicate to others what we have understood already, but also to identify the objects we encounter in the world through the construction of concepts. Concepts, however, are different from perceptual representations. In perception, a representation, that is, a reflection or an aspect stands for a real individual object in a one-to-one, direct casual correspondence. No such relation exists in the conceptual case, for conception is essentially imaginative and constructive…Conceptual representation stands for the commonality, which is merely assumed to be instantiated by individual objects. In a world of individuals, commonality among different objects does not exist actually but is superimposed on the reality of the individuals…There is no commonality outside our imagination. (Ibid, p.229).

Aristotle presents the senses and, for the most part, the intellect as receptive rather than active. The central feature, then, of Aristotle’s theory is that, when we think, we understand the world by grasping universals, which really exist in the world, although only in individual concrete wholes of matter and form. Abelard, who held that there were no universal things, and who thought of the soul as active rather than merely receptive, could hardly build on a theory of this sort without at the same time transforming it.. .He therefore postulates the likenesses in the mind, which he regards purely as contents, which are qualified by feigned attributes, such as being square or being ten metres tall, and are really not any thing at all. He places these in relation to thought as their immediate objects. But only, it seems, when the real thing is not present. . . When the object about which we are thinking is not actually present, the initial stage of mechanical sense perception is omitted. Imagination in this case consists of attending to a mental image, rather than fixing the attention of the mind on the thing itself.. .The perceptions of imagination are, like those of the senses, ‘undifferentiated’ - that is, they have not yet been sorted out by the discerning and deliberating intellect... Thoughts are sharply distinct from images of any kind. We think about a thing when, using our reason, we consider its nature or one of its properties. Thought, then, necessarily involves abstraction... Abelard’s common conception theory provides a direct answer to the question about the (proper) signification of universal words. When he claims that mental likenesses or conceptions are not things, Abelard is making a perfectly sensible point, if a little unclearly. As explained, he regards these likenesses purely in terms of their content and it is not unreasonable to say that mental contents are not things....mental likenesses (are) mere intermediaries used by the mind in the process of thinking... (John Marenbon in The philosophy of Peter Abelard, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp.1 62-171).

In the sixth and the seventh centuries CE, the Buddhist logicians, Dignaga and Dharmakirti, proposed a theory of Signification and Creativity, called apoha, which dealt with the complexities of linguistic and ontological universe in terms of dialectical and dichotomizing relations between the Being and the Other, between the Subject and the Object, and more generally, between all related but distinct entities of human discourses. Unfortunately, apoha has often been presented as a theory of negation. At times, a single, simple negation, at others, a double negation. In fact, apoha has nothing to do with any negative or positive proposition. What apoha really asserts is the fact that nothing is understood by itself, in isolation. All comprehension is dialectical and relational.

The point of departure is our first sensuous contact with the empirical reality that is always in flux. This sensuous contact with the point- instants functions as a stimulant for the constitution of mental images and conceptual constructs. These conceptual constructs are the veritable creations of our imagination and our intellect. They attempt to understand the heterogeneous universe of facts and fiction to arrive at a certain understanding of the nature of relationships that hold the universe of signification in some comprehensible order. In a word, this dialectical and dichotomizing process is the creative process par excellence. In this process, all a priorism is ruled out. All propositions, whatever their authority may be, are subjected to this intellectually intense creative process. All forms are re-organized, re-arranged and reconstructed in the domain of these conceptual constructs. In other words, in the history of ideas, the ever-changing and ever-transforming nature of the signifying phenomena is recognized as the basic hypothesis of all understanding and all creativity.

In the Western tradition we have a fairly corresponding theory of Signification and Creativity by the twelfth century French philosopher. Pierre Abelard, who presented this phenomenon in terms of sensus, imaginatio, intellectus. Like the Buddhist logicians, Abelard was also negotiating a theoretical space between the extreme Realists and the extreme Nominalists, the followers of Plato and Aristotle. And as in the Indian tradition, at stake was the interpretation of the sacred, canonised texts. The Buddhist logicians, beginning with Nagarjuna in the second century CE, had insisted on the conventional nature of language as opposed to the Realist assertion of language as a natural phenomenon. Abelard also proposed that language was a human institution, the words of language were imposed on the objects as they were perceived, positio hominum, volunteers hominum.

A discursive understanding of the Buddhist theory of apoha and Abelardian conceptualism lead us to realise that all creative discourses are specific articulations of specific perceptions of specific existential experiences. There is always a point of departure in the sensuous contact with the empirical reality of existential human condition that stimulates a specific perception and a specific constitution of a conceptual construct that a creative, human discourse is supposed to be. To he is to think and the being of the creative writer or the artist is realized in the conceptual unity of his creation.

The discursive formation of this 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. At the discursive level, such a discourse is situated historically, sociologically or politically but it is never a historical or a sociological or a political document. Above all, it represents what may he called the historical, sociological or political consciousness of a given temporal order. Such a discourse that represents human consciousness in its manifest as well as immanent form posits a significance that is both dialectical and transcendental. It operates within a certain enunciative field but it constitutes a universe that is temporal and a-temporal at the same time. In its spatial movement, it operates a certain condensation of space and time to achieve a discursive significance of the universal order without losing its temporal specificity, for in its temporal specificity, it addresses itself to a specific human condition. However, in its discursive constitution, it transcends this temporality to present a Truth that is valid for all times, past, present and future.

The greatest danger to the understanding of Significance and Creativity is due to the modem social sciences that have completely dehumanized the synchronic discursive formations. For them, the individual simply does not exist, it is only the social, the corporate, the communal, the group that matters. What has to be underscored with the greatest possible intellectual emphasis is that while the individual is a member of a group and must follow certain social and cultural parameters, the individual is never dissolved in the group. The parameter of the group and the social, that of langue, must be dialectically related with that of the individual, that of parole. All creativity, and consequently, all significance is situated in this dialectical space of langue and parole, of the social and the individual. The historical progression is directed by this dialectics par excellence.

Modem social sciences deal with systems and structures as if they are some kind of anonymous entities. Saussure’s fiats de langue has probably a lot to do with this colossal misunderstanding of synchrony and diachrony. All social scientists of the structuralist order, beginning with Levi-Strauss fell in this almost “metaphysical” trap. It was never realised that there is no such thing as a static structure or system whether we deal with synchrony or diachrony. This is where the Buddhist theory of the eternal flux is very important for the understanding of all human creativity. Whatever be the discursive formation, we cannot ignore the fact that all synchronic structures are diachronically constituted. As the empirical reality is eternally in flux, or in other words, eternally engaged in the dialectical process of dichotomising the universe of signification, we have to understand our universe in its uttermost dynamicity.

Another very serious problem is the very existence of a structure. The dialectical and dichotomising nature of the signifying process emphasises the inevitable co-presence of Structure and its Anti- Structure. There is an absolute reciprocity and simultaneity of this creativity. There is no such thing as a structure in isolation. In simple terms, one can state that the Being can neither exist nor function without the other. This has always been so from the times immemorial. The so- called purity complex is due to absolute mental insecurity that unfortunately has paralysed many a civilization.

Strangely enough, throughout the structuralist movement and its reincarnations in the so-called post-structuralism and post-modernism, there has never been the theoretical realisation of the concept of Anti- Structure in spite of the fact that the very existence and the realisation of a Structure, linguistic or cultural, is dependent on the reciprocal existence of its counterpart, the Anti-Structure. In fact, it is within the structure that the pulls and pushes, the centripetal and centrifugal forces, function to stabilise, and at times, to destabilise the constitution of a given structure. The only serious effort at understanding this aspect of structuralist activity was made by André Martinet in his Economie des changements phonetiques but unfortunately this approach to structuralism was never followed and developed in the later speculations of this movement. The only other theoretical proposition in this context of any serious note is Michel Foucault’s theory of erosion and the heterogeneity of the movements of different positivities within the same discursive space in the constitution of the historical discourse in his Archaeology of Knowledge. It is probably for this proposition that Foucault hesitated to be a member of the conservative structuralist movement. It is unfortunate that the intellectual movements like religions get hermetically sealed in their own theoretical frameworks. The Buddhist attitude of the middle path is definitely a better option. I personally believe that the incessant debates that Jean-Paul Sartre held with Levi-Strauss, Aithusser and Foucault need to be carefully scrutinized to have a better vision of the constitution of human structures. Sartre’s Critique de Ia raison dialectique must be considered an integral theoretical part of the intellectual upheavals of the sixties.

The insistence of the Buddhist theory of apoha on the dialectical and the dichotomising nature of Signification shows the obligatory coexistence of the Being and the other where the identity of each of them is determined reciprocally. In other words, the Being and the other are the Being and the other of each other. The Being and the other or the Subject and the Object are a matter of perception and existential realisation. Both are held together by each other and both realise their beings in this relationship of simultaneity and reciprocity. The dialectical relationship of the two terms in this universe of Signification show how wrong have been the commentators of apoha who attributed the concept of negation to this highly creative theoretical framework of signification. Creativity indeed is the kernel hypothesis of apoha. The dialectical relation is not a static relation. Within the space of the dialectical interaction is created the ever-emerging new universe of Signification, which, as the empirical reality it interacts with, is eternally in flux. The Significance, the Truth of human discourse is renewed and transcended in the very act of this dialectics. This transparent space of imaginary forms and conceptual constructs is the veritable space of all intellectual and historical progression.

The most important aspect of the theory of Buddhist apoha, the creative theory of the dialectical relationship of the Being and the Other, and the conceptual reflections of Abelard in sensus, imaginatio, intellectus requires a transcendental space of the imaginaire where we move from the most empirical, objective reality to the domain of perception, where the correspondence between the word and the object, the thing, is negotiated through a conceptualized universe. The word leads to the idea, the idea to the thing- le mot mene a l’ idée, I’idee a la chose, said Abelard eight hundred years ago.


Foreword – S.S. Boparai, Vice-Chancellor
Preface – Harjeet Singh Gill
A Tribute – Professor Kapil Kapoor
Introduction 7
Dignaga 19
Dharmakirti 37
Abelard 75
Condillac 119
Conclusion 135
References and Texts 155
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