Research Articles

Fashioning the Word-Tool: Insights into Language from Phenomenology and Yogic Mantra Meditation

How does a word come to have the meaning it has for us? This question poses a unique challenge to phenomenologists, because our foundational experiences of language are buried in early childhood and are normally inaccessible to our conscious adult experience. For this reason, I turned to an unusual of language to help fill in the picture of the phenomenology of language: the experience of japa mantra practitioners. Japa mantra is the practice of repeating a mantra over and over. I studied the first-person reports of japa meditators, as well as the instructions for japa practice from expert teachers in the Indian yogic tradition. What I found were rich descriptions of the processes through which japa practitioners forge associations between their mantras and the embodied visual, emotional, and conceptual content that accompanies them. These insights complement the phenomenology of language genesis, and suggest the processes that might be at work in all language acquisition and transformation. I was also able to use insights from the phenomenology of language to propose a novel position in an age-old debate in Indian philosophy concerning whether or not mantras are “linguistic” and “meaningful.” I argued that the temporal nature of language is such that the boundary between the linguistic and the non-linguistic, between sense and nonsense, may itself be vague. If mantra is a phenomenon that inhabits this grey area, then the question as to whether mantras should count as meaningful uses of language may itself need to be reformulated.

Read this paper online at the publisher’s site, or at my page.

See also my paper on the phenomenology and neuroscience of language experience and processing, and another on experience and language in chimpanzees and humans.

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“Fashioning the Word-Tool: The Instrumental Character of the Word in Yogic Mantra Meditation and Phenomenology.” 2020. Philosophy East and West. DOI: 10.1353/pew.0.0196.

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