Making the Argument for Sanskrit (was: Re: How to salvage Sanskrit in Berlin)

Sonam Kachru kachru at UCHICAGO.EDU
Fri Jan 12 16:43:52 UTC 2007

Dear All,

In Professor Wujastyk's list of those influenced by Sanskrit 
studies--(1) Hermann Grassmann (1809-1877), famous 
mathematician; (2) Leonard Bloomfield (1887--1949), 
structural linguist, behaviourist, scholar of American 
Indian languages, and founder of the Linguistic Society of 
America; (3) Ferdinand de Saussure (1857--1913), linguist, 
founder of structuralism--there are non-trivial relations 
indicative of major motivations in the development of both 
mathematics and the humanities. Grassmann's work in group 
theoretic algebra, and Saussure's attempt to give 
linguistics a rigorous foundation proved pivotal to the 
Bourbaki movement, (them who gave us a rigorous set-
theoretic definition of 'structure', and who alone seem to 
know exactly what they mean by such generalities). Among the 
founding members of Bourbaki was one Andre Weil (brother of 
Simone Weil), who studied Sanskrit for a number of years, 
and took it seriously enough to wish for a post at Aligarh 
Muslim University. Weil is also responsible for the 
divination of structure in Levi Strauss' field notes as 
being something more than mere metaphor. This story about 
the migration of abstract concepts between disciplines has 
recently been told in a somewhat pop manner in Amir D. 
Aczel, "The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of 
Nicolas Bourbaki, The Genius Mathematician Who Never 
Existed," though the work is very light on the core 
mathematical ideas, and does not even begin to address the 
conceptual possibilities that would be opened up by a study 
of Panini, Patanjali et. al. (Even just from Saussure's 
dissertation). Aczel is influenced (to a largely uncredited 
degree) by the historical and conceptual insights of David 
Aubin, particularly his PhD diss. "A Cultural History of 
Catastrophes and Chaos: Around the Institut des Hautes 
Etudes Scientifiques, France 1958-1980," (1998, Princeton 
U.), which is a better place to try and probe the conceptual 
issues involved.

A complete story of the relevance of the rigors of Sanskrit 
grammar and the ideas enactivated thereby would require a 
more comprehensive assessment of the inspirations behind 
such (academically) disparate fields as modernist poetry and 
algebraic group theory in the years following the 
dissemination and slow digestion of the achievements of the 
Indian / (here, = Sanskrit) intellectual traditions. It 
could go on to include such intellectuals as Irving Babbitt 
(professor of Comp. Lit, Harvard, end of 19th century, with 
2 years Pali with Sylvain Levi, a year of Sanskrit with 
Lanman); T. S. Eliot, (Babbit's student), with at least 
three documented years of serious Indology, etc. On the side 
of mathematics we would have to consider such figures as 
L.E.J. Brouwer and Hermann Weyl. Something of this kind has 
been performed for Sinology by such literary critics as Hugh 
Kenner in his "The Pound Era." Perhaps we could begin such a 
study with the attested last words of Herbert Coleridge, 
first editor of the project that would become the OED: "I 
must begin Sanskrit..."

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