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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Alex Antezana         


IB Theory of Knowledge Essay

Word Count: 1598

‘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.

        This statement pursues to make a claim that could buttress the epistemology of the modern world and depict the limits upon us as beings. Knowledge acquisition is an intricate process, constantly being changed, limited and influenced by many factors, and the ‘truth’ behind the knowledge we attain is often problematic depending on the different depictions of the ways of knowing being used. In this sense, though vocabulary communicates knowledge, it can also shape what we know because vocabulary does not encompass all aspects of the knowledge, missing the totality of reality. If there were no exhaustive knowledge of the underlying concepts and meanings of vocabulary, the knowledge that we can gain from the vocabulary would be inadequate. Although vocabulary can be exclusive and restricted, the absence of vocabulary does not imply the absence of knowledge. As we consider and examine the problems with vocabulary and knowledge acquisition, a critical knowledge problem arises: Is knowledge derived from new vocabulary (thus influencing our thoughts and behaviors), or is vocabulary developed as a mere response to new knowledge?

        Before assessing the statement, defining vocabulary is critical. In today’s world, we examine vocabulary as the words or phrases of a language and their understood meanings. In order to examine the role of vocabulary in which we communicate and gain knowledge in the different areas of knowledge, we must not only acknowledge vocabulary as a part of language but also as the highest expression of a paradigm, a theoretical framework, any system of symbols, techniques, tools, etc. “In science, a paradigm describes distinct concepts or thought patterns in any scientific discipline or other epistemological context.”(Thomas Kuhn) We use this system of symbols and techniques to communicate and express thoughts, opinions, emotions and more, thus claiming that vocabulary can limit and restrict the range of our knowledge (Philosophy).

        Vocabulary sometimes shapes the way we think, the way we perceive and the way we behave. This claim stems from the concept that vocabulary does not always encompass the complete reality of a concept or idea. In essence, vocabulary is merely a simplification or generalization representation of knowledge. Similarly, in areas of knowledge like the human sciences, vocabulary limits what we can know in similar ways. Psychology, for example, is in “many everyday conversations, terms such as ‘ego’ and ‘repressing’ unpleasant memories are used, but not always with an appropriate understanding of the actual meanings and concepts behind these terms – a phenomenon which psychologists have named ‘psychobabble’” (Crane and Hannibal). Popular psychology, what scientists consider psychology concepts based on popular and public belief, is a side effect of the misuse of these psychological concepts and ideas. Though some knowledge may be correct in popular psychology, it is still partial and incomplete. Simply using and acknowledging these terms does not ensure that knowledge about Sigmund Freud and his methods of psychoanalysis will be acquired because these terms are only general representations and only encompass certain aspects of a greater thought, consequently communicating incomplete knowledge. Thus, what we can know becomes limited by vocabulary. Also, in ethics, simply knowing the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ does not always indicate that people understand the full extent of their meanings. If we learn or come to know the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ only through the vocabulary, our knowledge would be very limited and superficial; it would be like walking around with incomplete, ambiguous dictionary definitions. By trying to define complex and intricate words such as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, we limit ourselves and take away from the knowledge. This knowledge problem can also be seen in logic (Language Acquisition). In Robert M Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Phaedrus uses a metaphorical knife to rationalize and dissect ideas and concepts to reach an ultimate truth with a simplified explanation, like vocabulary, but the opposite happens and he turns insane by over-rationalizing and taking away knowledge while trying too attain it. Phaedrus' Knife can therefore be viewed as a form of detrimental assessment, whereby the essence (or, in the terms of the novel, quality) of the examined thing is destroyed in the process of the examination. This destruction is inevitable when using logical analysis, as quality is an unquantifiable property.

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        The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis supports vocabulary shaping the way we behave and think. There are two components to the hypothesis; first, the ‘strong’ version which states that thoughts and behavior are determined and claims that the language we speak determines the way that you will interpret the work around you; second, the ‘weaker’ hypothesis states that language merely influences your thoughts about the real world (Language Acquisition). An example of vocabulary manipulating our thoughts is propaganda such as “Rosie the Riveter” influencing women to take power and control their lives. Also, many politicians use loaded questions, glittering generalities and several other ...

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