Meaning, Understanding, and Knowing-what: An Indian Grammarian Notion of Intuition (pratibha)

Philosophy East and West 64 (2):404-424 (2014)
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For Bhartrhari, a fifth-century Indian grammarian-philosopher, all conscious beings—beasts, birds and humans—are capable of what he called pratibha, a flash of indescribable intuitive understanding such that one knows what the present object “means” and what to do with it. Such an understanding, if correct, amounts to a mode of knowing that may best be termed knowing-what, to distinguish it from both knowing-that and knowing-how. This paper attempts to expound Bhartrhari’s conception of pratibha in relation to the notions of meaning, understanding, and knowing. First, I touch briefly on Bhartrhari’s views of consciousness and language, and examine at some length his indescribability thesis concerning the intuitive meaning of a sentence. Then, I delineate the general features of pratibha as intuitive understanding and discuss its probable range in relation to expert intuition and sense perception. Thereafter, I relate pratibha to the notion of knowing-what and show why these two notions are to be differentiated from knowing-that and knowing-how. The paper concludes with some remarks on the contemporary relevance of Bhartrhari’s conception of pratibha.
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