The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our knowledge; it shapes what we can know. Evaluate this claim with reference to different areas of knowledge.

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Theory of Knowledge Essay

IB Candidate Number: 003400-023

Scott Joel Heng

‘The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our knowledge; it shapes what we can know’. Evaluate this claim with reference to different areas of knowledge. (7)

Samuel Beckett, Irish avant-garde novelist, once said, “Words are all we have” (1). When we look around us, we find that ranging from advertising, where words are sometimes used to deviant ends to scientific journals, where a more technical jargon is used to convey the logical nature of experiments, language and vocabulary plays a very important role. Literature boasts of powerful works by Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and many others who use words to weave grandiose images of fictional worlds. In fact, our current understanding of history and religion has only been made possible by the passing down of verbal accounts and written documents. Even in Mathematics, the progressive learning of higher order concepts depends on the acceptance of a certain basic syntax. It can’t be denied that the vocabulary we have does communicate our knowledge in almost all areas of knowledge but does it actually shape the limits of knowledge itself?

In Arts, especially Literature and poetry, vocabulary is a powerful tool of expression and communication. Words like ‘soothing orange’, ‘mellow red’, ‘meditative languor’ might be used to convey an author’s actual experience of a beautiful sunset. Although, an intelligent reader does a fairly satisfactory job in re-constructing the image of the sunset, by the time these words are read, interpreted and visualized by the reader, there is a certain loss of ‘experience’. On a basic level, this amount of loss depends on the successful comprehension of the vocabulary itself and at a higher level, depends on the imagination aptitude of the reader, cultural gap between the reader and the author, and a host of other factors. In poetry, where there is a greater degree of succinctness, there is even a greater chance of misinterpretation. Despite this, it is important to ask whether there is really any ‘correct’ or ‘wrong’ knowledge being conveyed in the arts. Isn’t it precisely this gap between the author’s intended meaning and the reader’s interpretation, that generates interest and gives everyone’s take on the art piece a unique perspective?

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In other areas of knowledge, like Natural sciences and Mathematics, vocabulary plays an important role too. Mathematical proofs use deductive logic to prove new theories but deductive reasoning is not possible without the familiarity of prior knowledge of technical mathematical jargons. In that sense, proofs of new knowledge is shaped by the limit of pre-existing vocabulary. E.g. – Let us consider an ‘A Priori’ mathematical proposition like 2+2=4. For this to be proved true, one has to take for granted that the reader knows that ‘+’ means the addition of the number on its left and right side. It is ...

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