Lost in Translation? The Upaniṣadic Story about “Da” and Interpretational Issues in Analytic Philosophy

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In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, one of the principal Upaniṣads, we find a venerable and famous story where the god Prajāpati separately instructs three groups of people (gods, humans, and demons) simply by uttering the syllable “Da.” In this paper, our concern is not with ethics but theories of meaning and interpretation: How can all divergent interpretations of a single expression be correct, and, indeed, endorsed by the speaker? As an exercise in cross-cultural philosophical reflection, we consider some of the leading modern theories of meaning—those of Grice, Quine, and Davidson—in order to see if the Upaniṣadic story receives a natural home in any of them. We conclude that the story is best understood through Grice’s theory of meaning rather than Quine’s or Davidson’s.
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