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.
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 precisely this acceptance of a universal common language of mathematical vocabulary that not only allows for comparison of student performances on a Math exam but also comparison of proofs amongst seasoned mathematicians.
In fact, vocabulary plays even a more pivotal role in the sciences, where there are thousands of specific names for species, scientific processes and chemicals which by means of sense perception and inductive logic are used to prove complex hypotheses. Effective understanding of peer review journals in the scientific community requires not only a technical familiarity of terms and processes but also an intellectual fine tuning that allows the reader to really connect with the new knowledge presented. But, does vocabulary shape the entire spectrum of knowledge in the sciences and Mathematics?
Let’s look at an interesting thought experiment. In 2050, a scientist is walking along the beach. He notices a strange looking creature. He is absolutely stumped because this creature doesn’t fit in any of the animal classification genera and doesn’t seem to display any of the general animal and plant characteristics. Can he know anything about it? At first, it seems ‘No’ but intuitively ‘Yes’. He would touch the creature and non-scientific words like ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ would pop up in his head. On further exploration, he would probably throw a stick in front of the creature; if the creature runs and gets it, then he would know more about its locomotion traits. If the words from the English language don’t suffice, then he would coin new words, invent new symbols or carve out pictorial representations. Eventually, the use and invention of new language words, symbols, nomenclature is inevitable and along with sense perception and logical reasoning, plays a key role in communication as well as shaping up new knowledge in the areas of Science.
In other areas of knowledge like Ethics, one primarily depends on intuition and emotion, rather than logical reasoning. Famous American Novelist Ernest Hemingway once said, “I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after” (2). In fact, according to Harvard professor Marc Hauser, humans are born with innate ‘moral machinery’ (3). In that sense, ethical knowledge falls in the second branch of knowledge called ‘Innate ideas’ which do not require any proof of experience because they are already present at the time of birth. Do we read a book to realize that killing another is bad? Don’t we already ‘know’ that stealing is an unpleasant habit?
In fact, trying to communicate such knowledge might be counter to the intended enlightenment of the individual and lead to larger scale havoc in society. E.g. – In Islamic countries, curtailment of individual freedom by the religious police has bred a hypocritical peace that breaks down quite often. Riots, strikes, arrests, public sentences are common place and instead of the intended purpose of peace being achieved, the opposite is truer (4).
All his life, Lao Tzu would say, “Those who speak, do not know; those who know, do not speak” and “The truth that can be said is not the eternal truth” (5). Can language then, which is a product of thought, be used to convey ‘truth’ which seems to be is beyond the mind?
The area of knowledge where language plays its biggest role is History. “Tell a man there are 300 billion stars in the universe and he'll believe you. Tell him a bench has wet paint on it and he'll have to touch it to be sure” (6). Since most historical facts are beyond our actual experience, one will generally have a tendency to believe anything that is put on the table. Judging from archeological data on the extensive fortification of early settlements and the widespread existence of weaponry, it has been shown that warfare was prevalent by the time of the Neolithic period, which is the last part of the Stone Age. But, can we be sure that these weapons definitely came from that period? Can’t the Archaeological data itself be flawed? On the other hand though, there have been multiple cases where discovery of confidential documents have re-shaped history and clarified unexplained mysteries. Without old historical documents, cultural artifacts, literature books, there would be no ‘History’, hence the communication of written and spoken language plays a major part in shaping up our current knowledge of History. Having said that, one should be wary of the veracity of such knowledge and should use logical reasoning to construct a more accurate account.
Taking a broader perspective, deeper analysis opens up broader knowledge issues like “Can the ‘word’ ever truly represent the ‘real’?”, “Can one identify new experience without prior knowledge?”, “Can we ever truly know anything at all?” and so on. It is quite clear that the ‘representation’ is not the real. The word ‘dog’ has nothing to do with the real dog. It is a mere label for the sake of communication. We can conjure up a never ending list of labels like ‘black eyes’, ‘fluffy tail’, ‘round nose’ but the accumulative meaning imparted by these labels will never capture the real essence of the dog, will it?
Generally speaking, one’s mind seems to instantly stick labels of ‘scary’, ‘fun’, or ‘exciting’ to capture the experience in terms of its vocabulary of emotions and feelings. If one goes through a new experience for which one doesn’t have any words of description, how will one identify this new experience? It seems that actual experience is possible without prior knowledge, but the knowledge and identification of the experience requires familiarity with a rather strong vocabulary of feelings, emotions and other knowledge concepts. E.g. – If I go to the restaurant and eat a hot, medium rare steak but do not possess the definitional knowledge of ‘salty’, ‘soft’, ‘hot’, will I be able to identify the experience in terms of enjoyable or bad or even ‘taste’ the steak ? In almost all probability, I wouldn’t be able to place this experience in my experience spectrum since I didn’t have the prior conceptual knowledge to identify with it. My experience is similar to giving a chilly to a baby who still hasn’t reached the age of learning language. The baby will undoubtedly start crying because the hotness of the chilly would fire a response from the neurophysiological system but it wouldn’t be able to identify or label the experience.
As a knower, what conclusions can one draw from the above discussion? Accepting the worldwide uniformity in the grasp of vocabulary, language, symbols, and nomenclature, one can’t deny that vocabulary does indeed aid in the effective communication and shaping of knowledge in the areas of History, Arts, Natural Sciences and Mathematics. On the other hand, it has a weaker and in some cases detrimental role to play in the communication of ethics. In either case, what one can know should be not be shaped by vocabulary and language alone, but should also allow for intuitive, emotional, logical reasoning and perceptive tendencies.
Total word count: 1599
List of References
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- Laozi, Jane English, and Gia-fu Feng. Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.
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